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The Wonder That Was Esmeralda

She rose with the sun when it finally came, and by dawn word had it that a girl stood on the hilltop with her eyes closed and her face hidden by a rough cloak of brown wool, waiting quietly among the long strands of grass that grew in abundance on the fertile soil surrounding the village. As warm light began seeping in through the cracks in their grimy windows, the villagers pushed aside the moth-eaten curtains that offered little shade during the day and peered out into the streets one by one, marveling at the wonder that was Esmarelda. For that was her name, the girl who stood swaying atop the green hill like a delicate butterfly upon a branch, drying its wings as the air warmed around it.

The wind shifted suddenly, rising up in a strong gust that nearly swept her off her feet, yet Esmeralda dug her heels firmly into the soil, still moist from unevaporated morning dew,  and threw back her cloak revealing long auburn curls that reached her waist as the wind gathered about her, ruffling the tattered ends of her long patterned skirt. She turned upon the hilltop to face the villagers- men and women stumbling out onto creaky wooden porches with their ruffled hair and tired eyes- and as they shaded their vision with rough callused palms held flat on their brows, Esmeralda opened her eyes. They were so  vibrantly blue that a small child, bleary eyed and standing before the window of the furthest house, could see them bright and clear- two blue stars shining in broad daylight. And just at the moment when Esmeralda’s eyes fluttered open, the sun peaked over the hilltop, sending rays of light and warmth down into the valley from above, all the way to the bell tower where the chief stood waiting for the morning council to assemble, nodding his head proudly at his eldest daughter, at the wonder that was Esmeralda. In this way, she had greeted the sun since she was only eight years of age, and for the villagers the dawn of every morning and the chief’s eldest daughter were one and the same, a wonder that marked the start of  yet another day.

Long ago the village had been a colony ruled by a great nation that lay somewhere over the vast ocean, yet in time it had been forgotten and was now its own independent country, not ruled over by any of the  powerful neighboring states who had no interest in such a tiny portion of land with no apparent richness of valuable stones or minerals.

And thus the village struggled alone, and though the men and women labored day in and day out under the hot sun and the pouring rain and the raging wind while their children watched over the little ones with a careful eye, the villagers were happy and all was well. And then, one day, the sound of hooves reached the ears of the village watchmen late one rainy September night.

They came as if blown in by the west wind, seven riders dressed in black. A great roll of thunder signaled their arrival, and through the haze of thick dust stirred up by the hooves of galloping horses, the villagers who had awoken with their hearts pounding could just barely catch a glimpse of these men who had disturbed the peace of the village in the dead of night. As they drew nearer, the women who stood there squinting into the darkness beyond their grimy windows inhaled sharply at the sight of seven strong horses with coats gleaming red in the light of the half-moon, so red that they seemed to have been bathed in blood. Snapping the tattered curtains shut with trembling fingers, they ran to hold their sleeping children close to their shuddering chests, bare feet slapping on the hard floor in a panic as their husbands stood guard before the threshold, faces drawn and grim.

A terrible silence fell upon the village that night, and though all the villagers strained their ears and held their breaths in the hopes of hearing something, anything at all, there was nothing to be heard but the silence itself. It was not until morning that the chief himself awoke, and before the watchmen arrived he knew by the tight feeling of dread pinching his chest that something was not right. And indeed, as he stumbled as fast as his old legs would take him down the corridor to the bedroom of his eldest daughter, his heart which pumped the blood of the village itself told him that she was gone even before he found himself sinking to his knees, staring wide-eyed and panting before her empty bed, blankets thrown to the ground, sheets torn, mirror smashed to pieces on the floor. Esmeralda was gone, and for the first time in 10 years, there was no one to greet the sun that morning, no one to stand atop the lush hill among the long strands of grass and signal the start of yet another day in the village with a mere blink of her startling star-blue eyes. For the first time in 10 years, the villagers wept together in the square before the bell tower, sobbing as if they had lost it all, for indeed they had. For six days and six nights the villagers wept for the gem that had been lost to them, and on the dawn of the seventh day it was Esmeralda’s small nephew who  was the first to  realize that their tears had created a puddle in the center of the village square- a puddle that shone vibrantly blue, its surface shimmering and shaking with every gentle breeze that brushed across its surface, and the villagers took some comfort in knowing that the water had exactly the same hue of blue as Esmeralda’s eyes. They whooped in joy and threw their handkerchiefs in the air, ordering buckets and pots and baskets to be brought and filled so that every house held a small portion of Esmeralda that night, and not one person dreamed of anything other than the girl  standing on the hilltop with auburn curls tumbling down her back. In the morning, when the sun rose and the day began even without Esmeralda’s greeting, the lids to the carefully sealed containers of tears were opened with excitement, only to be thrown to the ground in horror at the sight of a bubbling liquid in the place of the blue water, a liquid as red as the horses ridden by the seven men dressed in black.

The villagers did not know that the girl they had shed so many tears for had not shed half as many for them. Although Esmeralda had wept for the first leg of the journey, tears rolling down her pale, delicate face and dripping into the copper mane of the blood-red horse she had been lifted onto, her fear began to subside after the first day, for he who placed her on his saddle in the dead of night was a kind man and a quiet one, drying her tears gently with his own sleeve. Esmeralda was soon to discover that she was in no danger, for word of the beautiful girl with glowing blue eyes and long auburn curls had reached the ears of the powerful ruler of the country that lay to the north beyond the jungles, and his longing to see this wonder for himself was so great that he had sent seven of his best men to steal her away from the village, afraid that she would not have agreed to come if simply asked.

Esmeralda was welcomed into the capital with great pomp and celebration, and though her heart still throbbed for her village with its lush hilltop and moist soil, and though she felt out of place here among these strangers with their flowing garments more money than they knew what to do with, she grew accustomed to the splendor of everyday life in the capital. That very night, she met the ruler of this strange northern land and so enchanted was he by her large blue eyes that he married her off to his eldest son the very next day, and after Esmeralda walked shyly down the aisle of the palace garden  dressed in white, she realized later that night that she had not given a single thought to the village that day. And nor did she think much about the villagers the next day or even in the days that followed, did not remember the way she had once stood so proudly atop that hill and welcomed the morning sun, gave no thought to her father whom she had loved and respected all her life and whose heart pumped the blood of the village itself. Never in her entire life had Esmeralda seen so much wealth much less been in control of it, and now with a nearly endless supply of coins in her purse she found that she could not resist the luxuries which had once repulsed her, seeming terribly wasteful beside the practical necessities of her home. She spent her days in the gardens with her maids or strolling in the market, followed by a procession of royal attendants carrying umbrellas and cool drinks for their beloved new princess while Esmeralda lazily pointed to whatever she liked and moved on while her attendants paid for her purchases and had them carried to her private rooms. The people of the capital grew to love her as the villagers had, and many came from far and wide to see this beautiful new princess whose eyes shone like blue stars in broad daylight.

In this way almost three years passed, until one warm summer night, Esmeralda dreamt of her father. In the dream, he lay unmoving on the cold hard soil beneath the bell tower from which he had jumped, unable to bear the terrible pain of his loss any longer, and when Esmeralda awoke with her tangled sheets drenched in sweat and her heart pounding wildly in her chest, she knew the dream to be true.

She slipped out of bed and ran weeping to the balcony outside her bedroom, and there she stood staring out at the vast expanse of the moonlit city, and  only then she remembered. Esmeralda stood there remembering the way the soil was still moist from unevaporated morning dew when she trudged up the hillside to greet the morning sun; she remembered the children, who snuggled about her late into the night on holidays as they all sat around a bonfire in the village square, sharing stories and laughs; but most of all, she remembered her dear father, whose heart had pumped the blood of the village itself. How foolish she had been, to think that a new life beyond the very soil on which she was born could ever make her truly happy. For now she realized that she had fallen prey to greed and desire, the terrible lust of  all things lavish that the villagers, and indeed Esmeralda herself, had once scoffed at, laughing at those poor fools in the capital who thought their happiness grew with the size of their homes and the richness of their food. How wrong she had been, how young, how selfish… the whole night Esmeralda stood there, regretting all she had done as she stood swaying in the piercing wind on the balcony with its marble floors, knowing that she had become a stranger to her old way of life and all those in the village who had showered her with  unquestioning loyalty and love as she had stood on the hilltop to welcome the sun’s warmth into their homes. And as the sun rose over the capital that morning, not a single soul peered through their windows to watch Esmeralda’s body wither and shrink at the first touch of the burning sun rays upon her delicate pale face, and when the royal guards came looking for their missing princess all that was left of her was a wilting flower with leaves so vibrantly blue they could be seen for miles and miles beyond the city limits.

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