January 8, 2013

Becoming Beautiful

There is nothing immediately noticeable about her that distinguishes her from most young ladies her age.  She is not exactly lovely, but her milky-white skin is free of blemishes; her sparkly, slightly mischievous blue eyes are framed by eyelashes that could use a little accentuating; and her long dark hair rebelliously escapes from the styles that try to contain it.  She spends carefree summer afternoons alternating between giggling with her best friend about the stylish new dress in the window at the village shop, and exploring the small woods near her home, imagining that she is on a quest to find a hidden treasure.  A perfect combination of feminine daydreams and tomboy amusement. 

She has heard the legendary tale, of course, of a girl named Cinderella, an ordinary girl like herself whose mundane, predictable life was turned upside down when the prince chose her above every other maiden in the kingdom.  How she longed to be beautiful like that!  To have the prince search tirelessly until he found her, and then whisk her off to the palace on his white horse for a perfect, story-book ending.

Oh, how she dreams of the future!  She can only imagine what an exciting life awaits her “out there,” away from this provincial village that hasn’t changed in centuries.  She longs for a life of adventure, to travel to far-off countries with exotic sights and strange-smelling food.  To do something important!  She wants to experience the world, to become someone whom other people would describe as interesting and confident and brave.

One chilly autumn day, the young woman strolls down the path on her way to town, daydreaming and anticipating the annual Fall Festival that is being planned.  Hard-working farmers and jovial shop-keepers and skilled tradesmen from the surrounding countryside will all be coming together in a few short days to celebrate this year’s bountiful harvest.  She knows she will be meeting a lot of different people, and she wonders what she should wear and tries to imagine how her hair would look in a cute new style that she had heard was becoming popular in the bigger towns. 

Suddenly, her thoughts are interrupted when she notices a little bird that had obviously been injured, peeping angrily and desperately, flailing his tiny wings as if it were drowning right there on the path.  Could this be the bird she had heard about just a few days ago?  The royal family had posted a notice in the town square, an announcement that the villagers had all read and discussed with each other, the only juicy tidbit of news worth mentioning recently.  The prince’s prized falcon was missing.

But no, surely this couldn’t be the prince’s lost falcon that everyone was talking about.  This was a just a frail creature of no significance, hardly bigger than the palm of her hand.  Most likely it had become injured when it had accidentally fallen from a tree nearby.  Surely, its mother would find it soon.  And if not, what would it matter if it didn’t survive?  There were many, many other birds, too many perhaps, judging by their noisy chirping in the wee hours of the morning and the mess they made all over the statue in town; what difference would it make if this tiny one didn’t live?

And besides, what does she know about taking care of animals anyway?  What do birds eat?  How would she keep it warm during the winter months ahead?  She knows absolutely nothing about fixing broken wings.  It would probably be best to let someone else, someone with more expertise and experience, take responsibility for helping this poor creature.

She hesitates for a few moments, but when no mother bird seems likely to appear, the girl’s heart fills with compassion.  She puts her apprehensions aside and decides that she would indeed be the one to care for it, to do her best to nurse it back to health.  

One thing she quickly discovers about injured creatures is that they have to eat every hour, around the clock, day and night.  The days turn into weeks and then months, the bird’s rehabilitation much slower than the girl had anticipated.  However, she remains faithful and vigilant in her duties, squeezing syringes of food into his little beak, drop by drop by drop.  She gingerly removes the bandages on its injured wings, replacing them with ones that had been carefully washed and dried.  The bird's incessant chirping and demanding screeches cause her previously peaceful home and independent lifestyle to become a distant memory.

Gradually, the circles under her eyes begin to darken, evidence of nights without sleep.  Her hair loses some of its luster, because frankly, there are some days that she is so weary that she simply cannot summon the energy to wash it.  Her quest to become beautiful has been put on hold, and is now beginning to take its toll. So much for the proverbial glass slipper.  There is no way a charming prince would ever find her attractive now! 

Day after day, she bustles alone inside her home, measuring food, checking the schedule, keeping the bird warm and fed.  She had missed the much-anticipated Fall Festival, along with the door-to-door wassailing during the holidays and the Epiphany Day feast.  With every invitation that she is forced to decline, with every detail her friends share about their still-carefree lives, her dreams of adventure slowly begin to die.  How could she even think of travelling and exploring and discovering the world, of accomplishing great feats of courage, when it is a herculean challenge just to make it into town each week for basic supplies?  When all her days are consumed with caring for this bird, this little creature that is so utterly dependent upon her? 

Slowly but surely, the bird begins to strengthen and grow. By the time the winter snow has thawed and spring’s promise is in the air, the bird has changed dramatically, its chest becoming robust, its wings strong and its feathers thick and glossy.  A successful transformation! 

Unfortunately, the young woman’s appearance has also changed, and not at all for the better.   Her arms have become scratched with those little claws that almost overnight have become talons, and she has frequently gotten pecked with that razor-sharp beak. This animal that she has so lovingly nursed back to health has often lashed out at her in fear or anger when he doesn’t understand that what she is doing is best for him.   Consequently, her creamy, flawless skin becomes disfigured and scarred, no longer perfect.

Inevitably, the day comes when the creature, no longer needing her care, is finally healthy enough to fly.  And just as she had predicted would happen, he flies away, and while she releases a momentary sigh of relief that this burdensome responsibility has come to an end, her heart is unexpectedly hollow.  She hadn’t realized how much she had grown to love this poor, defenseless animal in her care.  Her emotions are jumbled and difficult to discern.  She is confused and disoriented at the unfairness of it all!  After all this time, giving up her dreams and ambitions in order to care for this bird, and what does she have to show for it? 

She is no longer pretty, and she no longer has much optimism that she will ever become so.  She is no longer na├»ve and fun-loving, but has become serious and wise with experience.  While her friends are still wearing fashionable clothing, meeting interesting people, and making plans to travel “out there”, her life has inadvertently taken a different path.  Her priorities have changed.  She has no choice but to accept the sobering truth:  she has nothing in common with most of her village friends anymore.  She is unlovely and dull.  Different.

Soon afterwards, quite unexpectedly, the news reaches her small town that the prince himself is arriving!  The townspeople knew that this day would come eventually, but no one could have predicted when exactly it would happen.  Everyone knew that he would be coming and searching for the most beautiful young lady in all of the land to be his bride.  The young woman’s heart gives a small leap of excitement at the news, before she remembers the truth:  the prince would take one look at her, if he notices her at all, and would probably roll his eyes in disdain.  She doesn’t even have time to brush her hair or change her dress before rushing out the door to join the others who are assembling in the village square for this thrilling occasion.

The trumpeters announce the prince’s arrival with much fanfare.  There are ripples of excitement and anticipation throughout the crowd.  “There he is!” she hears others exclaim.  “I see him!”  Through the throngs of people, the young woman can just barely catch a glimpse of the prince’s face.  She almost forgets to blink, she’s concentrating so hard on just staring at his face.  Yes, she realizes, he is indeed every bit as regal and handsome as she had dreamed he would be.  His robes trail behind him in stunning colors she has never seen before.  And there, she notices with a shock, perched nobly on his leather glove is the bird, her bird, the same one she had nurtured for so long.  However, it is no longer tiny and frail, but strong and just as majestic as the prince himself.  It had indeed been the prince’s beloved falcon, after all!

What is happening?  The prince’s horse comes to an abrupt halt.  Directly in front of her.  How could this be?  Surely there must be a mistake!  He dismounts in one fluid motion, looks at her, right at her and declares with sure conviction, loudly enough for everyone to hear, but tenderly enough that there is no mistaking whom he is addressing, “You, my love.  I choose you.”

Almost with a mind of its own, before her brain has a chance to form the thought, her mouth blurts the words, “But why?  Surely you would prefer the most beautiful girl in the kingdom.  Someone that has not been marred.  Someone who is perfect.”

The prince just smiles, and even chuckles a little.  “You are right,” he admits.  “I do want the most beautiful girl, and that’s precisely why I choose you.  You see, the scars on your arms are proof that you showed compassion to a helpless creature.  Compassion is stunningly beautiful! 

He reaches to touch a strand of hair that had fallen across her face.  “The dark circles under your eyes and the less-than perfect hair show that you are willing to sacrifice your needs in order to care for another.  What could be more gorgeous than sacrifice? 

When his thumb gently strokes her cheek, she can hardly breathe.  “Those tear stains on your face?” he points out with affection.  “Those are simply lovely.  They are evidence that you chose the harder path, the one that required you to love fiercely and protectively, knowing that you would have to eventually say good-bye.”

“But you know,” he continues, “the most beautiful thing of all to me is the empty satchel, the barely-used traveling shoes.  They mean that you have faith.  In spite of your desire for adventure and excitement, you remained diligent to the task before you, faithful and humble.  Your feet remained at home, in the private place where no one was watching.  You held strongly to your belief that what you were doing was important.  And indeed, it did matter.   You cared for this falcon, although you had no idea it belonged to me.  Even when you didn’t know, you were doing it for me.”

He gently takes the young lady’s hand and leads her to his horse, white of course, which would carry them to his palace.  And just as she had dreamed all along, they live happily ever after.  Her prince had come and he had chosen her.  She had become beautiful.

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