Monday, April 6, 2015

The Princess and the Soldier (Once Upon a Time in the Fairytale Forest)

      In this great big world, there are people who manage to be loved and wanted by just about everyone they know. Alas, not everybody can be as fortunate as this, and those who are not can get by just as well with being loved and wanted by a select and special few. It takes a truly poor, unlucky soul to be made to manage in this world with nobody at all to love and want them. I understand very well that though it is thankfully rare, these kinds of unfortunate souls do exist. I was one of them.
   Even the toymaker’s apprentice knew that I would not be wanted. I was made as part of a regiment of fifteen tall tin soldiers, all the same: clean uniforms of stony grey, cedar colored hair trimmed to our ears, rounded caps, rifles at our sides. The only differences were the number and order of medals pinned to our lapels…and me, Avaline, the only woman in an army of fourteen men. “This one’s a lady,” the toymaker’s apprentice said incredulously.
            “Yes, she is,” said the toymaker.
            “Well, these are soldiers,” said the apprentice, “soldiers for a war. There are no ladies in war.”
            “Well, now there is one,” insisted the toymaker, “and her name is Avaline.”
            But the apprentice shook his head. “The boy won’t want her. He’ll only want the men, and then you’ll have wasted all of that tin to make her. What will you do with her then?”
            “We’ll see what he wants,” said the toymaker, and he patted my shoulder the way that a father would. He did not see that I was holding back tears.
            “The boy” was the toymaker’s son. It was his birthday, and we were meant to be his very best gift. We were polished until our tin gleamed like silver in the light, and then we were instructed to march into the boy’s bedroom, where he sat surrounded by all of the other toys he had received. When he saw us marching in, a smile lit up his rosy face, and I was so delighted that I forget about what the apprentice had said. I wanted to smile back, but I could not while I was on duty. The boy looked over our stony faces, our clean uniforms, the imposing rifles at our sides. “These are yours, Walter!” the toymaker said cheerily. “Do you like them?’
            “I like all of them except for the girl,” the boy said. I nearly dropped my rifle and fell to my knees! I thought I felt my tin heart sink straight down into my stomach! I wondered if the men on all sides of me could feel that I was trembling. The toymaker hid the disappointment in his voice. “Really? You don’t want Avaline?”
            “No, just the men,” said Walter.
            “Are you sure you don’t want her?” the toymaker appealed. “She’s a major, you know.”
            “I’m sure,” insisted Walter. “I don’t want a girl major. So can I have the men?”
            Don’t you cry, Avaline, I ordered myself. You are a major in a respectable army, not a weeping maiden. “All right, Walter,” said the toymaker with a sigh. “You can have the men. I’ll keep Avaline. Come back here, Avaline.” I didn’t want to move. To leave my post was to go against everything, but it was an order from my superior. I took my place at the toymaker’s side, keeping my head held high though it felt too heavy to do so. I remained stone-faced as Walter led my men away, and they followed him dutifully without giving me even a glance. The toymaker took me by the hand. “I’m awfully sorry, Avaline,” he said. “I’m afraid that’s just the way that little boys are. But I won’t be getting rid of you. I’m far too proud of you for that.” He gave my hand a squeeze and led me back to his workshop. I was off duty now, and it was all right to show my tears.

            I could have stayed with the toymaker forever. He treated me like a daughter, and whenever I could I helped him around the workshop to repay his kindness. He never made me feel as though I was not wanted, but at the same time he was unable to make me feel as though I was. As much as he treated me like a part of his family, I knew that I was really an outsider who didn’t belong anywhere. My former army fought all of their battles without me and seemed to have forgotten that I ever was a part of them. Walter had assigned a new man to take my place as a major; the only indicators that I ever was a soldier were my uniform, my military-issue rifle, and the medals pinned to my lapel. I did not feel like myself anymore, and I had never gotten a chance to feel as though I truly belonged. So that is why I decided to set out and find a place where I did belong, provided that such a place existed. Late one evening, long after everybody—the toymaker, his wife and son, his apprentice, and all of the other toys—had retired to bed, I took a piece of paper and a pen from the toymaker’s desk. I wrote:

Went out into the world, as it is a soldier’s duty. Don’t worry about me, for I will be all right. Thank you for everything. Avaline

            I quietly crept into the toymaker’s bedroom, where he slept peacefully beside his pretty wife, who belonged to him and him to her. I set the note down on his bedside table, and I just had to look at him for a few moments before I could truly decide if I was willing to leave the man who had granted me life and treated me so kindly. I did not want to lose the memory of his face—his bushy, dark beard and his warm, lively eyes, his frizzy dark hair, his good-natured smile. He had treated me with love that I knew the world may never show me. But what good was love, I thought, if I did not truly belong? I kissed both of his cheeks and departed from the room. With only my rifle, my medals, and the uniform that bore the name I did not wish to forget, I stepped out into the great big world.

            I longed to find anybody that I could belong to, but I never dreamed that I could ever belong to somebody like Annabel. Who could have ever imagined that an old wayward tin soldier could be loved by a woman with all of the beauty and regality of a princess? In the morning, I look out the window and see her reaching out to the sun in greeting, illuminated like a wild divinity of the forest. She clasps her hands and twirls on her toes, flaring out her golden hair and her silken gown. Her eyes catch me smiling at her, and she smiles back. She rushes to the window and kisses my lips, and I know in my heart that this is love. Something I had never gotten a chance to experience seems so real and so effortless with her, and it’s astounding just how real a feeling that I’ve never felt before can be. I know that I could never love anyone as I love Annabel.
            Annabel had also been cast aside by a child who did not want her. The little girl had requested a lovely china doll to be her friend; one with sea-green eyes, rosy cheeks, long black hair, and a beautiful castle and garden for the two of them to play in. Well, the dollmaker worked long and hard for many days and many nights, but on the very last day of work she realized that she had no black hair and no time to find any. She had hoped that the little girl would be happy with long golden locks, but it was not to be. The little girl took one look at Annabel and burst into angry tears, and her mother cursed and berated the poor dollmaker for being unable to give her daughter what she had asked for. So Annabel was left all alone in her lofty castle, with nobody at all to make her feel loved and wanted.
            I loved Annabel the very moment I caught sight of her leaning her pretty golden head out of one of the castle windows. But I wouldn’t have dared to speak to her. I was an outcast tin soldier, wandering like a vagrant with no real purpose, and she was on par with a princess. Surely, I was unworthy to even look her in the eye, much less actually speak to her and ask if she would have me! I was frozen to the spot, so overwhelmed by her beauty that I did not notice the first drop of the first rain since my departure.  By the time I came out of my spell, it was too late to search for any sort of decent shelter. I felt the cold water seeping into my joints. It slowed me down, forcing me into a limp and then a pitiful crawl. Finally, brought down to my hands and knees, I managed to drag myself under an old willow tree—the closest thing to a shelter that I could possibly make it to at the moment. Of course, it wasn’t enough. Every part of me was all locked up, and the rain continued to pour upon me on all sides. Cold drops slipped off of the willow leaves and seeped into my shoulders, my head, and my neck. I was done.

            As a rule, Annabel and I don’t like children. How can we? Our experiences with them showed us that they are horrid, spoiled brats who only ever think of themselves. But every rule has its exceptions; my life would have ended that day, had it not been for two children. Their names were Laura and Hana, and though they were both older than ungracious little Walter, I did not trust them. It was Laura, the younger one, who found me all locked up beneath the willow tree. She was a pleasant-looking child with a pretty face, but I still expected her to laugh or kick me or throw rocks. I did not expect her to free me from my rusted prison.
            Laura and Hana’s kindnesses reminded me of the toymaker. Together, the two of them guided me until my body remembered how to move. Their careful, gentle attentions brought warmth and health back to me, and I began to feel like a soldier again, not an unfortunate pile of rusted tin. The two of them were good company, and it wasn’t very long before I considered them my friends—the only friends I had ever had since the toymaker. I forgot that they were children, and I forgot that children were not to be trusted.
And so I confided to my friends that I was in love with a beautiful china doll that lived the life of a princess, in a world so far from and so above my own. I confided to them that I could never love another as much as I loved her, and that she was the only reason I even understood that a thing called love existed. But I concluded by clarifying that there was no way that a beauty like her would ever love an old outcast tin soldier, and by the time I had finished, the assertion of this reality had driven me to very undignified tears.
Toys are not able to speak to children in the way that children are able to speak to eachother. So when Laura and Hana understood my plight, even in the very limited ability I had to get it across to them, I knew that they were my friends for sure. And in that moment, anything at all seemed to be possible, if it was possible that someone like me could have true friends.
            Thanks to those two girls, Annabel and I learned so much more than just how to love eachother. We learned that there are friends for us. We learned that the world is not necessarily as cruel as it seems. Above all, we learned that we were not meant to live in this world without the love of another. I realize now that even those poor souls out there, still wandering the world with nobody to love and want them, must have somebody out there who will someday learn to do just that. They may not know it yet, but it is there.
            This world is a good one, filled with so many wonderful things. I think about my old squad mates and I pity them; their life is a war, and battle is all that they will ever know for the longest time. By now, the only indicators of my past as a major are the markers on my uniform and the medals on my lapel. My squad mates, who have forgotten that I ever existed, will only know the brutality of fighting in pointless war after pointless war, led by a childish little tyrant. But I know what it is to be more than a soldier. I know what it is to be a knight to a beautiful princess, and I know what it is to love. If you ask me, this is far more valuable than medals or titles could ever be. 

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