Bernard the street sweeper was cleaning along the kerb of East side of the market place, enjoying the pleasant warmth of the amber light of the setting sun. Steadily he worked, clearing up the mess and rubbish left by the hustle and bustle of the traders and their mucky customers. He swept up cabbage leaves, and scraps of paper, and cups. All so the next day more thoughtless people could make a mess again. He knew there was no point being angry about it, and instead diligently worked to clear up the rubbish. It was a steady job. Sometimes it was hotter, sometimes much cooler, but today it was just right. He found simple pleasure in the shush shush of sweeping his brush. He tried to work gracefully, to get the perfect motion. Just because he was a street sweeper did not mean that he could not be the best at his job.
He never missed a spot, even on the windiest days, and he was well respected by all the other sweepers. In the market square it was not only rubbish that was dropped. Sometimes people lost precious things too. He had found earrings, and once a wedding ring. He remembered clearly the anxious widow who had shed joyful tears to find that her precious ring was not stolen. She was so glad it was not forever lost - taking with it the happiest memories of her long dead husband.
What Bernard did was valued. Not by everyone, but by everyone that paid attention to such things. He was thinking about the money that had been dropped by people. He knew other sweepers added it to their income, but that did not sit rightly with him. He had no dependents, and for a moment swept extra hard to forget the might-have-beens. He had long ago learned not to report finding small coins to the police. They simply took the money, and sometimes beat him as well. Instead he threw the coins in the wishing well at the Southern gateway. He made a wish each time, seeing that as fair payment. Sometimes the small wishes came true, but more often than not nothing happened. This was fine with him - wishes are not meant to be granted automatically or where would the world be? Every month the coins would be collected and distributed throughout the city for the benefit of the poor and the sick and anyone else who had need of the funds. Rich people would come and throw handfuls of money into the well, showing how great they were to the very poor they had a strong hand in making. Still at least some good would come of their proud and vain actions.
In the very last corner of the kerb, Bernard spotted a coin dimly glowing in the last, reddest rays of the setting sun. He picked it up and chased the last scrap of paper into his trolley. He slipped the coin into his pocket and began to head to the depot, though the noble Southern Gate. He had found almost a small handful of coins today, and he poured them into the water. As they zigzagged and sank he realised he had not wished for anything. He did not mind. He would find more coins in the week.
He looked up from the sinking shimmering coins, and saw that someone had waded into the water. They were gathering the coins. He did not recognise them, but he did not know all the people authorised to collect the fountain’s money. He watched them awhile as the sun set. They were gathering every single coin, and soon they had even gathered the ones nearest him, the ones he had found today.
“What are you looking at sweeper?” The man in the fountain said. He was using a flat sided net to shovel out the last of the coins into what looked like a very heavy bag.
“Just watching. I haven’t seen you here before. Usually the coins are taken out during the day, with a lot of fanfare and announcements.”
“Changes.” Said the man smiling with a certain amount of charm. “The collectors were robbed just outside the gate. So now we have to collect all these in secret. It’s a real pain, but what can you do? Last time they lost every single coin.”
“Every single coin?” And with that thought, Bernard remembered the coin he had slipped into his pocket in the rush to finish. “Then you better have this one.” He felt a roughness on one of its edges where it had been nicked by some unknown adventure. He tossed it into the water in front of the man’s net. “I wish it could help all the people of the city.”
“Oh it will help at least one person.” Said the half soaked man.
“Good night.” Said Bernard, pushing his heavy handcart back into motion. It really was late, and he did not want to be out after dark, especially if there were thieves about. He really hoped that he hadn’t just been talking to one.
It was very late when Bernard got back to his simple home. It was still warm from the days heat. Bernard washed the city’s endless dust from himself and after a piece of hard bread and cheese, and a little cheap wine to drink, he went into his usual deep sleep.
By the time Bernard was asleep, Dexter had got his stolen money back to his home outside the city. It was quite a big house, and could easily house a servant or two if he wished. He had just fired the last two for complaining that he was late paying them. Such impudence could not be taken lightly. It was a mystery why it was so hard to find good staff.
At least it made his latest venture so much easier. Nobody to question him about the dripping bags of coins that weighed him down. Nobody to wonder why the house smelled of wet copper. Nobody to have to pay to keep quiet about his various guests. It was all so convenient really. He poured the wet coins on the warm stones of his courtyard. If they dried in the bag they would corrode and people might ask if he had had a flood or something embarrassing. Nobody would ever suspect him of taking from the fountain. He couldn’t believe no one had thought to take the money before, and all it had cost him was some damp clothing. It was not that he needed the money, it just seemed a waste to spend it on undesirable people. The sick and the poor and the needy had nothing to do for the likes of him so why waste money on them? Perhaps he was doing the city a service. The numbers of the poor seemed to increase yearly and if their source of money disappeared, perhaps they would too.
He swept up the now-dry coins. They felt warm from the stones beneath it, but had left a mark like a big green bloodstain. He would have to do something about that later. After changing out of the rough clothes he set aside for this adventure, Dexter prepared himself a simple evening meal. Perhaps he was hasty in firing the girl. She really did make good food. After washing and perfuming himself, and with a full belly and a contented feeling, Dexter went to sleep.
It was not a nice sleep. It was filled with irritating dreams of hungry children, crying babies, sick people. Once in the night it was so loud he woke up, only to hear the crickets chirping. He turned his silken pillow over and after a very uncomfortable period of sleeplessness, he eventually got a little more sleep.
The next day Dexter set off to launder the money he had stolen. He cast bets and won, and cast some and lost. He deposited money at three different banks. It was a fair haul for a night’s work, and he was very pleased with himself. Nobody need ever know how he got it, and the only sign he had new money was the finest possible pair of shoes. After all he was worth it.
The new shoes pinched a bit, and hurt his feet while he was doing his errands, so he stopped and took off his new shoes and replaced them with his old comfortable ones. He went to return the new shoes, but it seemed he had remembered wrongly which shop he had bought them from. He was hot and tired by the time he gave up looking. The new shoes seemed surprisingly heavy to carry about now they were useless to him.
That night Dexter went to sleep and the dreams were worse. A barefoot tramp followed him wherever he went in his dreams, casting dirt and corruption over all the pleasant rooms of his home. Everything was corroding like coins in salt water. Verdigris and rust crawled all over the walls, and he kept trying to run from the tramp that chased him, but he became slower and stiffer and heavier. The green corruption began to turn his legs into bronze. He could no longer move. He feared becoming a statue like the one in the courtyard. All the while the moaning and crying increased, and the transformation into a statue increased. By the time he had frozen solid, he woke up screaming. Twice in the night he was tormented by these dreams.
The next day he awoke unrested and bleary eyed. Someone was banging on his door. He was very seldom bothered by callers now he had moved out from the town. Arming himself against any hostile visitor with a heavy stick, he opened the door. A barefoot tramp faced him. “You must return the money, it’s your only chance.”
His reedy voice irritated Dexter, and so he struck the tramp. Perhaps he had been spotted taking the money from the fountain. Nobody would believe he had taken it, so with a good beating he sent the tramp on his way. All the while the tramp shouted “Doomed! You’ll be doomed by your greed.”
A bit shaken, Dexter slammed the door shut and retreated back into his home. Several hours later he still hadn’t relaxed, and remembering his dreams did not help. He couldn’t focus on anything so he went into the town and found a bar. Despite never having done so since being a young man, he proceeded to get quite drunk. The evening got lost in what his sober self would have called drunken foolishness. Then there was some singing, some bets, a fight, and then he woke in prison. A surprisingly hefty fine later, and he was released. Dexter vowed not to get drunk again. He returned home and found he had no food left in the house. Rats had eaten what little he had left. He cursed his bad luck. The courtyard stank of wet metal. The green stain was still there.
Someone was banging on his door. He reached for the heavy stick and went to see who it was. The tramp was back, and still barefoot but his rags were not quite so tattered. “You must return the money.”
Dexter raised the stick to strike him. “What do you know?” He said menacing the tramp. He had a hangover and beating someone with a big stick was hard work. Perhaps he could stop him from returning.
“You stole the money from the fountain. Already the city’s poor cry out to you. It will only get worse.”
“Leave me alone. Go, and do not return.”
”If you do not take notice, I must return. You have awoken powers you can not imagine.”
“You’re right. I can’t imagine anything beyond you making things up. I have no food in the house, and no money here. You will get nothing from me but another beating.”
“I know, yet still I must try.” Seeing Dexter swing the stick, the tramp quickly dodged out of the way and was soon gone.
Dexter shut the door and bolted it once again. He leant on the thick wood and considered. He had suffered some awful bad luck lately. Perhaps he should put some money in the fountain. He dismissed the idea. One lousy dream and a mad tramp, are only food for superstition. He needed real food. After a short trip in to town to by some surprisingly expensive late night food, he went to sleep.
This time his dreams were not filled with the cool green horror of creeping verdigris, but with the reds and oranges of burning timbers. He saw a small coin stuck in between the flagstones of his courtyard begin to get hotter and hotter. Soon it was white hot and everything about it began to burn. Even the stones seemed to be consumed like burning charcoal. Sparks and flames ate every single item in his house, surrounding him with an inferno. The silent flames ate everything, but in the dream there was no heat even though his clothes burned leaving him naked and ashamed. The fire took off his beard and then his hair and then he woke up drenched in sweat and screaming.
It took a long time for his heart to stop racing, and dawn was breaking by the time he got an hour’s sleep.
With three nights without decent sleep, Dexter was beginning to feel awful. He wasn’t usually superstitious, but he suspected it he had picked up a curse from the coins. He gingerly poked his memory towards that awful burning dream of the night before. Right in the middle right at the start he could see the coin. It was the one the old sweeper had handed him. He had to find that coin.
He went straight to the green stain in his courtyard and looked. There was a tiny crack. Perhaps the coin had slipped into it.
There was no way to reach down, and he shone a light into the crack and still could not see anything. The thought the coin might be there drove him to find an iron bar, and prize and stab at the stones until he chipped it free. His soft hands blistered in the effort. Finally he levered and lifted the heavy slab aside. Triumphant, he threw the bar down with a clang. Carefully he looked at the damp square hole.
Aha! he had found the coin. What to do with it? Should he take it to a priest? And then he would have to explain how he came to come by it. He decided he would chuck it back in the fountain, and let the city deal with it. Then perhaps at last he could get his life back.
After cleaning himself up, and putting on his most respectable clothing, Dexter headed to the fountain. To his minor horror he could see several rich people gathered round, pouring in coins. The city had organized a fundraiser to replace the lost coins. He almost cursed his luck. To put in one tiny coin would raise a line of awkward questions. He almost turned around right then, but he dared not spend one more night with that coin in his house.
He went to the nearby bank and asked for a forty silver coins. Small! silver coins he hastily advised the cashier before she bankrupt him.
Ruefully he realised that it was probably twice what he had stolen earlier, but any less would probably cost him more in reputation than the money was worth. The rich of the city took note of each others acts of charity, noting those who gave more being successful and anyone giving noticeably less hazarded being deemed a credit risk.
He hurried across the square, and threw the money into the fountain. “Have it back!” he said out loud, causing the other patrons to stare at him. He noticed the street sweeper stop and stare at him, and his whole body tensed. Bernard nodded and carried on sweeping. Things seemed to be resolving themselves.
Just then a little drop of water from the fountain splashed him and hit him right in the eye. He wiped it away and thought no more about it. While he did some necessary shopping, he noticed how some parts of his city seemed more run down than he had noticed. How every back alley seemed to have sign of someone sleeping rough. The more he looked the more he saw. He fled the city. By the time he returned, dusty and sweaty - being somewhat overdressed for his exertions in the heat.
He just had time for a cool drink before someone was banging on the door. He grabbed the stick and opened it.
He was unsurprised to see the tramp, still barefoot.
“Leave me be tramp. I have returned the money.”
“That is good. There may be hope for you yet.”
Dexter did not like the sound of that. “What do you mean?”
“You haven’t completely hardened your heart to the rest of the world.”
This sounded suspiciously like preacher talk to Dexter. “Who are you tramp?”
“I am the guardian of your happiness.”
Dexter laughed uneasily and slammed the door.
That night he saw visions of the money in the fountain. It flowed into the city like a river in the desert, touching the driest parts and bringing them to life. He saw people who were starving being fed, and their families growing stronger, in turn strengthening the city. He saw people who were sick being treated, and the loss and waste of their illnesses being restored back to health and activity. People returned to work and the city prospered. Less people were poor and needy. Even the very old were affected, their years of wisdom kept within the city walls for longer. The smallest donation at the right time could save a life. Each coin added to the next and its effects multiplied. Compound interest was something that Dexter understood very well.
Awakening gently in the gloom of the night, Dexter considered all that had happened.
He felt so stupid for having thought that the money did nothing, that it was merely consumed by people who would need it again. He felt sad for all the people who needed help. There was a strange feeling in his chest. Another person might have recognised it as compassion, but Dexter merely thought it was the late night eating. After a drink of soda water, he went to sleep again.
While eating his breakfast he heard a thumping on his door. No doubt it was that tramp. What now?
Dexter didn’t bother reaching for his stick. He opened the door. “What can you possibly want?” Said Dexter to the tramp, completely without thought.
“I wondered if I may have the shoes?”
Now Dexter was not bright in the sense of unseen powers, but the last few days had shaken him deeply. He reached down and found the ornate but mostly useless footwear and handed them over. The tramp put them on and immediately seemed to gain in stature, and nobility. Something very strange was going on.
The tramp had changed. His clothes were still old and torn, but the man underneath stood tall, and now he spoke with the strong voice of a nobleman. “Your eyes have been opened now. You cannot unsee the need all around you. When the least amongst you suffer, the whole nation suffers. You will suffer too if you turn a blind eye to what needs to be done.”
“I can only do so much.” Said Dexter, feeling the unease of realising he had beat this person with a stick more than once.
“Then do that. Otherwise...” And with those words he quickly reached into the doorway and grabbed the stick snapping the burnished staff as easily as a stale breadstick.
It’s fair to say that from that day forth Dexter was a good deal more charitable. It even affected the life of his household. He treated his staff better and found that they were a good deal more satisfactory. Eventually he began to enjoy doing good things for the people of his city, and maybe he would have a statue made for him when he died. He hoped that would be a very long time from now.
He had so much left to give.