There is a bench where the sun always shines and the ducks gather round to have their
afternoon feast. An old man sits there, a smile etched into the wrinkles of his face. He always sits
there, reaching into his brown paper bag to grab a handful of joy that he tosses to the birds who
guzzle them whole.
And there is a young man whose forehead lines are always creased, moulded by the
sculptor that is Worry who is never too far. The stresses of his life seem to be piled high, creating
a ladder that disappears into an angry cluster of storm clouds up above. He does not intend to
climb that ladder, never intends to see past the sweat and toil. His back is so broken from all the
work, covered with bruises and blisters, that he does not see a reason to try. He does, however,
catch rays of hope. They seep in through the chinks of his labour, and he feels that warmth on a
good day. On days when he has made his wife happy, on nights where he has completed the
whole day’s work. Otherwise, it’s a cold, blustery life without a glimmer of hope in sight.
One day, the young man decides that he has had enough. In desperate need of a break
from the daily noise of life, he makes his way over to the nearest public park. His eyes rest upon
a quiet place where the sun seems to glow in a perfect way, but, to his dismay, is presently
occupied by an older man. Not wanting to disturb the man, he turns to walk away but stops in his
tracks when he hears the man speak.
“Child,” the old man smiles and gently pats the empty spot next to him on the bench.
The young man politely sits, feeling a bit awkward. A silence grows, and the young man does
not know what to do or say. The old man turns to look at the younger one.
“How are you?”
This question startles the young man as he was busy swimming in the thick of his own
thoughts. Maybe the furrow of his brow gives it away, but the older man squints at the boy.
He repeats, “How are you feeling? You’ve got worry on your face.”
This opens a floodgate of emotion. To the young man, it is an invitation to complain
about everything that is wrong with the world. So he does. The way he keeps getting on his
wife’s nerves and does just about everything to cheer her up, but it doesn’t help. The way work
keeps piling up no matter what he does, and the way his boss probably secretly hates him. The
way his parents don’t understand all the hours he spends breaking his back to make a living
because he apparently isn’t living the way they want. The way—
“Here,” the man breaks off a piece of bread, handing it to the young man. Below, the
birds quack and shuffle and swallow the crumbs. He smiles assuredly at the young man as he
watches his angered expression change into that of perplexion. “Go on.”
The young man hesitates. He feels the quiet of the park surround him. The yellow tones
of the sun encompass everything from the feathers of the ducks to the earth under his feet. He
numbly drops the bread on the ground and waits. One of the ducks comes closer only to nibble at
it a little and waddle away.
The youth, mouth gaping, looks at the old man. How dare this bird reject his piece of
bread like that! He scowls. The old man chuckles to himself. The young man, now infuriated,
decides that he is wasting his time and leaves that circle of sunshine with the man and the ducks.
The next day, the man wakes with an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach. He hasn’t felt
this in a while. Is it… guilt? He must be feeling bad about leaving the old man alone without
excusing himself properly.
Throughout the day, that feeling nags at him. It clings to his chest like a parasite, and he
can’t help but feel heavy inside. The young man decides he should take a stroll through the park
again… just to see if the old man is there.
But instead, the old man catches sight of the younger one first! Once again, he motions
for the youth to sit on the bench. The young man cautiously takes his seat, the painful awareness
of his faults nestled in the rumples of his hunched shoulders. And again, a silence spreads.
The old man smiles at the younger one and asks, “How are you?”
The young man’s guilt is washed away by a tide of discontent that arises from this
question. His brows furrow, his face incredulous. How can a person not reply to such a common
question when it is asked through eyes that are surrounded by such kindness; the kindness of the
eyes, emphasized by the crows-feet that gather around them?
He sighs, “everything is going wrong and nothing is going right.”
And the old man listens quietly to the story of the troubled youth’s life, nodding here and
there, all the while feeding the ducks that totter at his feet. When the young man is finished, the
elder reaches inside his paper bag for crumbs and lays them in the palm of the youth’s hand. He
smiles. The younger one’s lips twitch in response.
Confused, the young man looks at the bread in his hand, then looks at his elder
companion. Is the old man ignoring his plight?
This time, the young man leaves the piece of bread directly in front of a duck. The bird
notices the new crumb and eats it whole. At this, the young man grows pleased. He leans back,
taking in the beauty of the park.
He realizes he never noticed the way the breeze rustles the branches of the serene willow
tree that kneels so gracefully by the water. Or how the sun creates a halo around this part of the
land, kissing the earth with its glory.
The old man smiles and puts away his bread. He turns his face toward the sun and closes
Suddenly, all of the obligations that the young man had yet to fulfill flood his mind and
he realizes that he must leave at once. In one breath, he stands and shakes the older man’s hand
before making his exit.
The next morning, the young man opens his eyes and feels a little happier. He had risen
out of a dream where there was a beautiful tree bending over a pond. And near it was an old man
encircled by radiant creatures.
The young man hurries to find that spot in the park, hurries to escape from the stresses
that follow him like his shadow. And just as he catches the older man’s eye, a smile blooms on
his lips where only frowns used to reside.
He takes his seat, warmed by the sun and by the spirit of the one who sits beside it. The
old man turns to look at the younger one and, with a knowing smile, asks, “how are you doing
The young man closes his eyes, listening to the occasional pitter-patter of the ducks’ feet
beneath him. His eyes open. He realizes that for the first time in his life, he doesn’t feel the
oppressive shroud that would sometimes choke all life out of him, leaving him feeling stripped
bare and robbed of all hope. Now there is no barrier between him and the sun. He can finally feel
the comfort of its rays caressing his face, like a mother who finally cradles her child after being
apart from him for too long.
“Nothing has changed… but I feel happy. I feel like… like something inside me is about
to take flight.”
The old man nods, the gentle markings of a smile surface. He turns to the ducks who are
beginning to nibble at his shoes, slightly greedy for more bread. Chuckling to himself, he breaks
morsels from the large loaf he seems to always keep with him. The young man gladly takes the
pieces of bread that are handed to him, letting the duck bills nip at his fingers in the pursuit of
filling their bellies.
Then he leans back, looking curiously at the man beside him and asks, “tell me, how is
your day going?”
The old man beams like the sun that lies above his head. “Lovely,” he replies simply.
The younger fellow smiles, but something is picking at the seams of his brain. He thinks
for a moment. And for a moment longer… until, a question formulates itself somewhere deep
inside. It is something that has been bothering him for ages, though he hadn’t realized it until this
point in time.
He furrows his brow once more before inquiring, “how… How are you always so
content? You always wear a smile on your face… but I have never seen anyone who looks as…
as happy as you are, sitting on this old, rickety bench in the middle of a park, with not a soul
around… except for these ducks, of course. I just—” The youth fumbles with his words.
The old man folds his hands across his stomach, bowing his head in humble
understanding. His tender gaze then meets the searching eyes of the young man who was
beginning to look more like a child— desperate to find answers in his search for the answer. The
elder man’s eyes, deep with wisdom, crinkle at the sides, and he motions to the tall willow tree
with its swaying leaves and the sun that glints off the ripples of the pond.
He smiles, “how could I not be? I have everything right here. Gifts from God are the best
The young man’s lips turn up as well, but soon become rueful. He replies, “I just wish it
could always be like this.”
The old man widens his eyes. “Who says it couldn’t?” He tosses breadcrumbs for the
birds at his feet.
He continues, “the happiest man alive has a life that can darken the brightest of days.”
The older man pauses to look over at the youth who opens his mouth to protest, but he raises his
hand to stop him. “But instead, he finds happiness for himself where others find sadness, and
continues in his struggle to do so.”
All of a sudden, the lines that would stay tightly creased between the young man’s brow
loosen. He feels a touch of something growing within him. Something inside is opening its petals
like a flower greeting the whispers of dawn.
His lifelong question has finally been answered. Now he holds the key to that elusive
feeling of inner satisfaction. He has finally caught what he didn’t know he had been chasing all
He spots a duck at his feet eyeing him, a curious glint in its onyx eyes. The young man
takes breadcrumbs from the loaf himself this time, watching as the duck gratefully swallows
them. He sees that the birds beneath him are perfectly content with the little bits of goodness that
they nibble at.
No matter how small the crumbs, the ducks will be pleased with however many they take
between their bills. They enjoy each of the morsels as they come regardless of how many they
The young man looks at the sweetness coming from the old man’s eyes, then at the birds
that ruffle their feathers at his feet.
Time seems to stop in that place. The clouds above carry on in their roads marked in the
azure sky. It seems to the young man that where time slows, peace grows.
His mind wanders to his worries that used to keep piling. Now, he watches that ladder
tumble down from its colossal height, the ladder that would cast a shadow so dark in spite of the
glowing sun that it concealed. The young man’s stresses no longer reign over his life. The
responsibilities that held him in shackles are now miniscule. The young man finally sees that he
can use them to steer his life in the direction that leads to where he wants to be. He will finally
walk the path of true contentment.
Today, there is a bench where the sun always shines and the ducks gather round to have
their afternoon feast. An old man and a young man sit there, smiles etched into the lines of their
faces. They always sit together there, reaching into a brown paper bag to grab a handful of joy to
toss to the birds that guzzle them whole.
The idea for “Breadcrumbs” came about as a result of difficulties that arose in my
personal life, and the internal dialogue between my conscience and my blameworthy nafs (the
source of our animal instincts and desires according to Islamic tradition, which I identify with).
The wise old man in this story represents my conscience during this low point in my life, which
was constantly trying to advise my younger, more unrestrained self, symbolized as the young
man. In the story, the main conflict that the young man is struggling with is finding contentment.
He is so caught up with his responsibilities that he forgets to contemplate what he is contributing
to himself in a spiritual sense. Consequently, he becomes riddled with anxiety and stress, and his
spiritual self is becoming weaker. The young man then decides that he needs a break from the
worldly duties that he is stuck with. And over a few interactions, the older man helps him realize
that true happiness is found nestled in every moment, be it in times of sorrow or times of delight.
The breadcrumbs represent this very thing; though they seem small and insignificant, one can
find contentment through anything, so long as they are looking at it with the right lens.
At first, the young man is confused as to why the old man would want him to feed the
ducks soon after he has finished his tirade about his complaints. The old man is consistent in his
small effort to offer the boy breadcrumbs to feed the ducks, even though it may not make sense
in the beginning. However, in the end, his efforts pay off; the young man reaches for the loaf and
breaks his own piece to feed the ducks. This is like the one who seeks happiness and makes their
own effort to gain it, with the guidance of others. The support of the old man during the younger
man’s trials helped him see the truth of the matter—that contentment is not elusive as long as
you make an effort to find it, especially when it is difficult to do so.
My inspiration for having an older person relay wisdom to the younger one comes from
grandparents in general. If one takes the time to sit at the feet of their grandmother or
grandfather, they could learn more than any words could ever teach them. This goes for the
elderly in general! Spending time with those of ripe age teaches many lessons that have to be
experienced rather than taught.
The way I wrote this story was inspired by the acclaimed author Neil Gaiman’s style of
narration. He writes as though he is there with the reader, reciting the story like storytellers of
old. His writing is almost always poetic and descriptive with an underlying philosophical nature.
I wanted to incorporate a deeper message relating to the theme, even within descriptions of
nature. For example, the sun is frequently mentioned throughout the story. First, as a simple
element of nature. Then, figuratively as the source of internal warmth. Another time as a mother
holding her child who she had reunited with. Through these language devices, I cultivated a
deeper message that can hopefully resonate with the reader.
Writing this story was a journey for me, as it awakened certain truths within that had
been unlocked before, but became shrouded with doubts. Trusting the process is one of the most
profound things one can do when in a hard time in their life. Hope is when one believes in a
Higher Power who is planning and watching over everything that happens to them, and believing
that in the end, it will soon pass. “For indeed, after hardship [will be] ease” (The Holy Qur’an,
94:5). “Breadcrumbs” strives to portray this theme clearly and coherently enough for the reader
to relate with and recognize it.
By Khunsa Ansari