London was bustling with people and animals in the early spring. The marketplace was crowded. Sellers screamed their product, animals were held in cages as they aided in the noise. The skies were overcast; the air was chilly.
It was a busy day.
A young man who was nineteen was among one of the many that made up the crowded city. Like most of the homeless citizens, Jonathan was hungry.
He had slowly deteriorated away in the city’s gutters for the past few years. Once he had thought he would be richer than his parents. But reality had hit him hard and left him in the streets.
Jonathan sat along the wall. He observed the people of the city. Orphan boys ran through the crowd as they played. A wealthy woman walked alongside her husband as they strolled through the streets.
His eyes caught hold of a man holding up a loaf of bread. It was a beautiful loaf of bread made out of the expensive wheat. He wrapped his arms around his stomach and grimaced. He hadn’t eaten anything for a few days. The poor boy couldn’t even remember when he last had a filling meal.
Groaning to himself, Jonathan looked away and tried to forget the heavenly sight of the bread. His matted, brown hair fell into his eyes as he did so. No money, no food. A peasant man walked by him holding a scrap of rye bread. It was pitiful compared to the golden wheat bread across the street, but Jonathan would have sold his own soul to have even a bite of the man’s stale bread. At this point, he would rather eat the livestock’s food.
A young woman, no more than fifteen, darted by him. She ran by a stand and to his disbelief, she took a piece of meat. Meat! Was the girl sick? She could be killed for doing such a thing?
Before the seller turned to face the crowd again, the girl had completely disappeared among the crowd.
Jonathan stared wide-eyed in the direction she disappeared in.
The last time he tried to steal food, he was caught and hauled away before he could even get a bit of the fruit he had taken. The penalty for stealing again would be much more severe than his last punishment. He still had scars from the lashings he had been given.
But so many stole and were able to eat. Why couldn’t he be one of those people? The idea was compelling. He could almost taste the wheat bread on his mouth.
The daydream brought his stomach pain.
The seller of the meat scowled as he scoured the crowd.
A door he had been leaning against opened and slammed into his back. He jumped forward and looked up at a woman who glared down at him.
“I don’t want any beggars at my door. Shoo.” She kicked at him. “Go on. Get out of here, beggar.”
Without a word, Jonathan stood and walked briskly away from her.
He muttered under his breath. Life definitely threw him the short stick. Being poor was a curse.
Jonathan examined his side where the woman had kicked him. His ribs stuck out from starving, and the red spot stood out against his pale skin. Sighing, he yanked his shirt back down.
The cold in the ground chilled his bare feet as he walked down the street. Every now and then he would smell different foods that made him wince in hunger.
Another person held up loaves of bread just ahead. Jonathon’s mouth watered at the sight. He breathed in and the smell of the bread was better than he thought it was. The hunger became worse. He wouldn’t be able to bear it if he didn’t have a bite of food right then.
It just happened.
As he passed the stand, Jonathan’s hand reached out and picked up a plump loaf of white bread.
Fear blazed through his whole body as he walked away unnoticed. His head was full of mixed thoughts. He had food! He was going to get caught again! This was a mistake. But he had food!
No shouts of anger sounded behind him, and the young man kept walking swiftly away.
His mouth watered so much. He only wanted to sink his teeth into the crusty bread.
Quickly, he turned into a space between two of the stone houses. Two figures were slumped against the wall.
Jonathan recognized one of the smaller figures. The girl who had taken the salted pork.
“You!” He exclaimed. The girl jumped and looked up startled.
“You’re the one who stole that meat.” He continued.
Her blue eyes narrowed and she examined him. “It looks like you stole something too.”
His eyes darted down to the bread he held.
“You must be new to the life of a thief.” The girl smirked. The person with her, a younger boy, shook her shoulder. He looked at the meat she was hiding in her thin coat.
“You could say that.” Jonathan sighed. He shouldn’t be doing this again. This was a sin.
“Sit down.” The girl smiled at him.
He sat close to them. The two must have been siblings. The girl had brown hair that was wrapped up in cloth sloppily. She had a round face with slightly chubby cheeks. She looked very innocent. Her companion was still a child. His round eyes looked at Jonathan warily.
They were both thin like he himself.
“I’m Jonathan.” He sighed.
“I’m Mattie, he’s Charles.”
Mattie crossed her arms. “I’ll make you a deal, Jonathan. Share the bread, and we’ll share the meat.”
This is what people called a stroke of luck. This was Jonathan’s first.
“Is this really the first time you ever stole something?” Mattie was leaned back against the wall as she feasted on the food.
Jonathan stared down at the wheat bread and salted pork. It was the best meal he had ever had.
“No.” He admitted. “I stole food once, but I got caught.”
Excitement lit up her eyes. “You got caught? Did they flog you?”
Startled by her excitement, Jonathan shook his head. “Got twenty lashes since I couldn't pay the fine.”
He continued. “The church usually helps me, but people aren’t as rich as they used to be.”
“You can never rely on someone else,” Mattie said blatantly. “People aren’t trustworthy.”
Jonathan shrugged. He and his parents had no other choice than to get charity from the church. Things only got harder when his parents died three years ago.
He bit off another bite of the bread. It was no longer warm, but the flakey bread was sweet. He savored the taste.
A drop of water hit his forehead. Jonathan looked up and was rewarded with a rain drop in his eyes. Blinking hard, he moved next to Mattie against the wall. Within minutes, a storm had covered the city of London.
“I guess we’re stuck here unless we want a bath,” Mattie said. Lightning forked through the sky.
“Or if we want to cook ourselves.” Jonathan added.
Mattie laughed. “It’s not like it matters. We don’t have anywhere to go anyways.”
She turned to him. “I like you, Jonathan. You seem like a decent guy.”
He raised his eyebrows in shock. “I just stole a loaf of bread today. That makes me decent?”
This girl made him wary. She was a criminal after all, but then again, so was he.
“Do you ever confess at the church? Do you ever feel bad for your sins?” He questioned her.
Mattie didn’t seem phased by his questions.
“I don’t believe in God. And if he real, then he doesn’t care about us.”
She said that like it was normal conversation. Jonathan froze in shock.
“You. Don’t. Believe?” He asked slowly. It sounded strange coming out of his mouth. The idea that someone didn’t believe in God . . . well, it almost didn’t make any sense to him. Everyone believed in God.
A woman who didn’t believe in God and who wasn’t afraid to admit it was insane. Jonathan couldn’t help but think this woman before him was dysfunctional.
“If God isn’t real, then how did the world get here?” He asked.
She gave him a bemused look. “I don’t know. But if we are going to ask questions, then if God really cares about us, why is he letting us starve? If he doesn’t want us to steal, then why doesn’t he give us what we need. Doesn’t the Bible say he will provide for us?”
Jonathan looked up at the storm clouds. “Maybe its punishment. The consequences of sin.”
Mattie stared ahead at the wall across from them. Charles whimpered and leaned into his sister.
He wrapped his arms around himself.
Jonathan knew the child was cold. His thin coat provided no warmth, and the chill from the storm made him shiver.
Charles squeezed his eyes closed in clear pain.
“Are you alright?” Jonathan straightened up and looked at the child.
Mattie stroked her brother’s hair and sighed. “He can’t talk, and he’s very ill.”
Her voice became strained as she said those words.
Charles whimpered and sobbed.
“Our father cut off his tongue for lying to him three years ago. Just a few months ago, Charles started getting spells of pain. It gets worse every time.”
Mattie didn’t look at her brother or at Jonathan. A few tears slipped out and fell down her cheek. One of her hands wiped it away in haste.
Jonathan wrapped his arms around his knees. Somehow he became colder than he already was.
The three sat on the ground as rain fell from above. For hours they sat in silence, waiting for the storm to end. Charles had fallen asleep on Mattie’s lap. Her tears had dried and her face was calm.
“I think you are brave to be watching over him like this,” He whispered.
She looked at him. “This isn’t bravery. It’s love. I would never abandon my brother.”
“And your parents?” He asked cautiously.
Grimacing, Mattie spoke harshly. “They died around the time Charles got sick. We’ve been on the streets since trying to survive. I steal to keep him alive. I only want my brother safe.”
It was then that Jonathan realized how tired Mattie was. She was such a strong girl.
“Mattie, why don’t you get some sleep. I’ll stay awake.”
She looked at him incredulously. “I can’t take that chance and risk waking up in prison or alone.”
“I promise I’ll stay here and keep watch. You and your brother will be safe.”
Mattie looked down before saying, “Thank you.”
She leaned further into the wall and made sure Charles wasn’t moved too much. Her eyes closed. Jonathan watched the two. Not five minutes later, Mattie was snoring softly.
He settled into a comfortable position and kept his word. Even as the night fell upon them.
When the storm had passed and the sun’s light made the night flee, Jonathan was still awake.
Mattie’s eyes opened and she sat up. Charles woke up as she moved. They both stretched causing their backs and necks to pop.
“You’re still here,” Mattie said.
“Just as I promised.” He nodded.
All three of them stood up off of the hard ground. The sky was blue now, not a cloud in sight. Jonathan wondered if the sun’s heat would drive away the cold today.
“You should stay with us,” Mattie said as they began walking to the crowd that had already begun roaming the streets. “We can all help each other.”
“That sounds . . . good.”
For so long, Jonathan had been on his own. And now, he had two companions. Two companions he would look after, and who would in return help him. He smiled.
“That sounds really good.”