Listen to the MUSTN'Ts, child, listen to the DON'Ts.
Listen to the SHOULDN'Ts, the IMPOSSIBLEs, the WON'Ts.
Listen to the NEVER HAVEs, then listen close to me:
ANYTHING can happen, child, ANYTHING can be.
The old woman sat in a chair with a blanket over her lap. She stared into the fire and did not move when the girl walked through the door, setting the bell tinkling. The girl approached the old woman, her footsteps muffled by the dusty carpet. She knelt beside the chair and clutched at the woman's thin arm. Her skin was papery and soft, and the girl could feel the warmth that emanated from the crone. She looked up at the wrinkled face, cast in inconstant shadows from the flickering light of the fire in the hearth. Saying nothing, the girl just waited for the old woman to acknowledge her. They sat in silence that stretched longer than the girl thought she could bear. A single tear ran its course down her pale cheek and dripped off her chin. The tiny droplet landed on the arm of the woman, between the girl's fingers. As if a spell were broken, the old woman turned sharply and looked down at the girl, her eyes flashing red in the firelight.
She stared at the girl, her red eyes boring into the green ones that looked up at her with such pleading, such pain. Then she lifted her other hand and traced the track the tear made on the pale skin. ‘So you have come,’ she said in a voice that sounded as dusty as her carpet, ‘At last, when there was nowhere else to go.’ She continued to penetrate the girl with her gaze, cutting through her defences as with a knife, and seeing into the heart of the matter. ‘It hurts, doesn't it?’ she whispered. The girl dipped her chin in mute assent, and the woman nodded as well, turning back to the fire.
‘It will lessen,’ the woman said, her eyes mirroring the dancing flames, ‘but it will not go away. You have a heart of fire, child, and that is a terrible burden and a great gift. Do not be discouraged, though. You must try a little harder than others, and it will take you longer to get there. That is part of the price of fire. We who are gifted with fire burn hotter than the rest, but it happens in its own time. The world will heave and turn, spinning on its axis, spinning through space, and the years will pass, but that means little to the Fire. The Fire comes when it will, as it will, and does not take notice of such trifles as time.’ The old woman closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She could have been asleep, or dead, but for the warmth of her skin and the very slight sound of her breath. Then she continued.
‘Your heart is young, child, and it is still kindling. The pain you feel is it coming alive. Life is pain, child, and we come to this world in pain, and we live all our lives in pain, and someday we escape that pain, but only in death. Those with the gift of Fire feel more than any other. Pain is ours to bear, and ours to cherish. It is our life that we feel pulsing within us, and the way we know we are still moving forward. I will not lie, child, it is a terrible, wonderful thing to have a heart of fire. But you must accept that it is your lot in life. You must accept the gift.’ She paused as the girl gave a barely audible sniff. ‘But pain is not all we are gifted with, child.’ She lifted the girl's chin so she could look her in the eye. The old woman's gaze softened, and the light that gleamed in her eyes blazed forward with warmth and comfort. ‘Pain is what keeps us grounded, but that does not mean it is all we have. We also have greatness. You must seek out what your fire wants to give you, and you must pursue it with all your heart. You will be rewarded for that, and well. It is only when we understand great suffering that we can truly appreciate the world; it is only when we make great sacrifice that we can truly treasure that which is good. It is not an easy path, child, but it is yours to take. And if you do, I promise, it will be worth it in the end. I know you cannot see it now, you can feel nothing but the pain of the new fire inside you. But fire is cleansing. It is pure. And it will never lead you wrong.’ The old woman let go of the girl's chin and turned to the fire once more. When she spoke again, her voice was thin and distant, like it came from very far away.
‘If you accept your heart of fire, it will serve you well, child. But it must be accepted freely, without reservation. Otherwise the fire will die. The pain will leave, if that happens, but everything else will leave you as well. Your life will turn to embers and ashes as the fire in your heart dwindles, until one day it is snuffed out completely. Your body will still live, your mind will still function, blood will still pump through your veins and breath fill your lungs, but you will love none of it. You will feel none of it. So you must ask yourself if you can accept the gift and the burden that have been given to you. They are yours alone to bear, but if you accept them, you will not be alone. Fire gives life even as it consumes. If you accept your heart, you will find greatness. I cannot tell you more, for I do not know your path. But the reward always surpasses the sacrifice, and you, child, will burn brighter than any I have ever seen.’
The woman stopped speaking and grew very still. The girl stared at her, watching her pulse flutter in her throat. After what seemed an eternity, she rose from where she knelt by the chair. She stared into the fire and saw shapes appear in the flames, dancing and whirling. Pressing a hand to her chest, she felt the warmth radiating from her, calling to its own. She took one last deep breath, then turned and left the room. The door tinkled again as it swung open and she was blasted with a gust of cold air from the street. She squared her shoulders and pressed her hands together, as if in prayer. And in the moment of acceptance, she felt the warm glow in her chest spread throughout her entire body. She sighed, and began to walk down the street.
Listen to the Mustn'ts © Shel Silverstein