Sometime around 1850 or so, in one of the larger cities of Massachusetts or New York there lived a boy named Jack. He didn't have a last name, or a middle name. Just the one single name, "Jack" scrawled on a wrinkled scrap of newspaper pinned to his clean but worn baby dress. No one knew who his parents were, where they came from or where they went to. Jack just showed up one day, a tiny baby wrapped in an old torn blanket and lying in a cheap wicker laundry basket on the steps of the orphanage.
Jack was a quiet baby, not given to much crying. He tried hard to listen to the grown ups who told him what to do, and he always followed the rules as much as he could. When he was nine he had chocolate brown wavy hair and eyes to match. He didn't grow very big because there wasn't much food to be had in the orphanage. All the bills were paid and food bought with donations from kind and generous townspeople, who weren't as kind and generous as they could have been. It didn't help much that the orphanage was surrounded by six foot gray stone walls and none of the townspeople's consciences could be pricked by the sight of the boys' ragged clothes and shoes tied together with twine. So the boys in the orphanage went without more often than not, and grew resigned to the constant gnawing in their empty bellies.
In the winter, when the snow was thick upon the ground, the stone walls of the orphanage felt like ice to the touch. The boys shivered throughout the day as they did their chores, sat in their classes, played in the dirt in the walled-in yard, or waited in line for their meager portions of porridge at breakfast and thin soup and black bread at dinner, and each one shivered through the night under his single scratchy wool blanket in the unheated dorm room. There just wasn't enough money to pay for extra fuel.
When December rolled around their stomach growls and shivering grew less as the townspeople began to feel the Christmas spirit and remember the poor, parentless boys behind those tall gray walls. And on Christmas morning, a very special, very exciting treat appeared at breakfast. An orange! Jack and the other boys waited eagerly all year for this day, for this most rare of all gifts. In fact, it was the only gift any of them had ever received. It was prized above all things, cherished, caressed and gazed upon with wide and sparkling eyes. Each boy saved his single orange as long as possible, lovingly running a hand over the smooth outer skin, feasting on its beautiful glowing color, the one sun-bright spot in their gray lives. They each anticipated its sweet, tangy, juicy taste for days, until the skin began to wrinkle and dry out. Then, and only then, was the orange peeled and each delicious bite savored to its fullest.
Jack's quiet and gentle personality had won him many friends in the orphanage by the time he was nine years old. They played their own form of baseball every chance they could using a fallen tree limb and a rock with a rag tied around it. They drew bases in the dirt with a stick, and Jack and his buddies played even after the snow fell. They just pushed as much of it as they could against the walls and played anyway. The teams, the Pirates and the Cowboys, each had ten boys, and Jack was captain of the Cowboys. He had picked the name because he planned when he got old enough to travel out west and become a cowboy, with his own horse and saddle, and no one else had any better ideas for a team name.
It was Christmas Eve on this fateful day, and the championship game
was at the bottom of its last inning. Jack and his Cowboys were down
one run. The Pirates had already made two outs on them. It
was Jack's turn up at bat. He grabbed the tree limb where it was leaning
against the wall and sauntered up to the plate. He tested the swing
of the "bat" a few times as he let his eyes scan the bases, trying his
best to ignore the Pirate's catcalls and derisive comments.
Every boy in the orphanage was standing on the sidelines, their eyes riveted
to Jack. The orphanage windows winked in the sunlight above their
He swallowed one last time and stepped into the batter's box, and nodded to the pitcher. The boy on the pitcher's mound looked to one side, then the other, and started his wind up. Jack kept his eye on the pitcher's right hand as it came around, and felt a shiver rush through his body that had nothing whatsoever to do with the icy wind slipping through the holes of his sweater. His eye followed the rock-ball as it came hurtling toward him, and he swung that bat as hard and as evenly as he could, his face grimacing with effort. Crack! The ball soared high above the third baseman's head, up and up until it flew past the left fielder. Jack pumped his legs as fast as he could. He rounded first and headed for second at top speed, his eye trying to follow the course of the ball. His steps slowed as he projected the ball's trajectory, and his heart stopped beating as he realized what was
about to happen.
The ball sailed right through a second story window. The precious,
expensive glass shattered, and shards cascaded to the snow on the ground,
like drops of fire from the sun overhead. Not a sound was heard except
the tiny tinkle of glass. Every boy stood like a statue, immobile
and incredulous. Jack stood stock still between second and third,
and beads of sweat and fear popped out on his forehead. One by one
the boys turned and looked at him, their mouths hanging open. Jack
looked from one to the other, hardly believing what had just happened.
He was afraid to think. Every head turned as the orphanage's front
opened and the austere headmaster charged through and came barreling toward them. It didn't take him long to figure out who was responsible for the broken window, and he hauled Jack off by the ear, dragging him up the steps and inside. Just then the bell was rung and all the boys silently filed into the gray stone building.
The next day was Christmas morning. All the boys woke even before
the bell summoned them, thrilled to their toes to find the coveted orange
at the foot of their beds. All the boys, except Jack. There
was no bright shiny orange on Jack's bed. Just an empty gray hollow.
He looked around the cavernous room and saw the sunny round fruit cradled
in each boy's hands. The other boys, even his best friends, his fellow
Cowboys, avoided his gaze, and talked only amongst themselves. Jack
ignore their silence, tried to keep his eyes off their oranges, but it was very hard. It seemed so unfair that this was to be his punishment for yesterday's broken window. It had been an accident after all. But nothing he could say yesterday had softened the headmaster's heart. And so, orangeless, he dragged through the day. He did his chores in silence, for no one would speak to him. He walked to chapel alone, for no one would walk by his side. He stood by himself in the yard, for no one would play with him. Jack had never felt so miserable in his entire life. He could endure the scant food, the thin clothing, the snow that got in through the holes in his shoes. But he could not bear to be without his friends. It was the greatest punishment of all. And oh!
How he wanted his orange! He could just imagine the sweet, cold nectar slipping down his throat. But it was not to be. Not this year.
Finally the endless, empty Christmas was over, and Jack went alone to his bed. He hoped in his heart that he could die before morning, so he would never have to endure such a day as this had been. He just couldn't face seeing all the other boys with their precious oranges, laughing among themselves and ignoring him even one more day. With his head buried beneath his pillow, Jacks' little body shook with sobs.
A soft hand on his shoulder startled Jack and he sat up. A strange,
moist object was shoved into his hands, the giver quickly running down
the aisle between the beds into the dark. Jack felt the odd roundness
of the object. It took him a moment to figure out what it was.
Not a regular, run-of-the-mill orange was now cradled in his palms.
Rather, a very special one, pieced together from segments of nine other
oranges, highly prized by his Cowboys teammates that would now, of necessity,
be eaten this night instead of several days hence.