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The Dark Girl: A Modern Fairy Tale

Once upon a time lived a girl who was like dark, no other way to put it. Dark as la noche, gleaming—no chocolate honey, no brown sugar—but a tribal black, a hefty undeniable black. And add to this, she was tall, mucho tall, model-tall, so tall her parents couldn't hide or disguise her in any way. Her mama and papa, nice loving folks, took one look at this girl, and another look at her older sister, the bellissima, simpatica Graciela, with skin as rosy and luminous as dew on a petal, gold hair soft and rippling like liquid butter. Graciela was also tiny, petite, a size 4 dress, a size 4 shoe. There you go. What would you have done?

Now this sad family lived in the Limited Continent, which may have accounted for their limited perspective—and then again, maybe not. They simply knew that a mistake must have been made: the dark girl could not be theirs. So although both parents were themselves dark, with blotchy pocked skin, frumpy (despite living next to Bloomingdale's and the Body Shop), they hid the dark daughter, Alma, in the storeroom behind the store, where no one but a few hardy clerks ever ventured, and with Graciela between them, they took their rightful place at the front of the Limited Continent. And promptly forgot the dark one in the back.

The shrewd parents displayed Graciela in the latest fashions every season and let her preen, shriek, pirouette to her heart's desire. Meanwhile they waited for the gentleman visitor they knew would come (for it had been written in the Mall Scriptures, The Book of Sears and Profits: Someday your prince will come...) and though they did not speak of it to Graciela (not wanting to set her hopes too high), they secretly prayed at the Mall Altar, the famed shrine of Piercing Pagoda where the Zen Master received disciples and marked them by piercing holes in their earlobes, nostrils, navels, and even nipples. And what they prayed for was the coming of the King of Gap, a faraway kingdom that reigned beyond the waterfalls and ice rinks, where wind and sun dazzled the eyes and all young men wore khakis and denim jackets. The old King of Gap had died, and the new King was searching for a bride. And who better than the Princess of Limited, their own bellissima Graciela?

Meanwhile back in the storeroom, Alma grew, alone and untended as a wild flower, and like a wild flower, her beauty was savage and startling. Tall, dark and handsome, one might say, but of course not within earshot of her parents who insisted they had only one daughter, the magnificent Graciela, pretty as pretty could be. Dark Alma, left to her own resources, discovered abandoned boxes of books (left there when the last Knight of Walden had closed the door to his palace and taken to the forest road again) and found truth in letters and words, moving them, shaping them, kneading and creating words out of blood and tears. One word at a time.

Lost in a restless dream of creation, she found an exit to the storeroom and one bright morning, left the Limited Continent. No one saw her go, and sadder to say, no one cared. She crossed the vast freeway and the Bridge of Lost Truth and found herself facing a dense green and black area she immediately realized must be the woods, although she'd never seen woods before.

She entered and wandered until she was tired and found herself at a little cottage. An old woman lived there. Her face was scarred (they thought I was a witch and stoned me, she later explained to Alma), but her eyes and voice were kind, and she invited the tall girl inside. The old woman's name was Mer, the French word for sea, but pronounced the same as Mere, the word for mother (also Mare for Horse), and Alma immediately thought of her as the mother she'd never had.

Mer invited Alma to stay, and with joy, Alma agreed. Mer set about teaching Alma the important lessons of life: how to read not only a book but another human being, how to read the earth, and how to read water. The lessons were exciting and useful. Mer and Alma were busy all day. The lessons had no set beginning or end, they flowed like water through the day. While learning to read the world around her, Alma also learned to cook, plant a garden, keep the cottage neat, and whistle as she worked. Despite living in the woods however, she could not get over her fear of animals. She still preferred reading a book to a human being (other than her beloved Mer), or an animal.

As she grew, she blossomed into a young woman of extraordinary beauty and wisdom. Snow White (in another part of the woods) heard of Alma's reputation, and rather than face competition as the Most Beautiful and Loved in the Woods, simply took her seven little men, packed up and moved to another woods. Mer adored Alma, and with a mother's loyalty, believed there could be no finer young woman anywhere in the world.

Alma's greatest joy during these days was to plant her garden. She pressed her ear to the ground and heard the earth speak. She sensed where to plant and which areas to leave alone. Her garden was as wild, beautiful and unexpected as her beauty. When she wasn't planting, she read, or created with words. Words were her tools, her music. She twisted and fashioned them into paintings, scrolls, works of art. Letters frolicked in her study in the woods. Words curled around her and slept in the crook of her shoulder.

One day as she wove a yarn painting of a story she had just read (about a girl who wed a beast), she heard footsteps and saw a man enter her garden. He saw her and bowed low.

He didn't need to introduce himself: she recognized him by his khakis. He was beautiful as the sun, with sunlit eyes, sun-kissed hair, tall and golden and smiling.

In truth, he was awed by the dark beauty who rose from her hammock with natural grace, set down her multi-colored yarns, and took his hand in hers. She searched his eyes and saw his confusion.

Is she beautiful, or ugly? he wondered silently. I've never seen anyone like her, and I don't know what to think.

"Think for yourself," she suggested.

He looked even more bewildered, wondering if she was a witch who could read minds.

In a moment however it was her turn to be bewildered. His animals came to join him in the garden, a horse, dog and cat, and as they nestled around his legs, she backed away. He stroked them absently, watching her. It never entered his mind that this formidable woman could be afraid of Happy, Sunshine and Snowflake. They stared at each other in silence.

Mer came out and saw him glowing in the light of the sun. A kind soul, she perceived at once, with his animals clinging to him in absolute trust, but somewhat lacking in the brains department. However, he did glow with a fierce light that warmed even her. And he didn't cringe at her scarred face, simply smiled his beautiful smile, and held out his hands until she squeezed them in her own.

"You are a king," she said, "and used to power, but not used to women."

The brilliant smile faded a jot. "Exactly," he said. "I've just become king, and I'm on my way to seek my bride. I'm off to see the Princess of Limited, the hot Graciela who is supposed to burn a man's socks off by just—like—being. But I didn't want anyone to know who I was. I want to see the real girl, you know."

"My son, I advise you to lose the khakis," Mer said, and led him inside where they sat at the dinner table, and Mer and the young king talked while Alma watched. Or rather Mer spoke of her travels and readings while the young king, whose name was Brad, listened with wonder in his eyes. Gradually Alma joined in, and the two women exchanged views, critiques of books they'd read, interpretations of the universe. Both women were animated, vivacious, alive, and completely unselfconscious. Brad rested his chin in his hand and watched them dreamily.

By the time he left in the morning, the three were friends. Alma had forgiven him his weakness and indecision, and he had made laughing attempts to introduce her to his animals. Before he left, Alma wrapped a scarf around his neck. "There's a word woven in it for you," she said. "Your word."

"Thank-you Alma," he said and bent his head impulsively to kiss her. Their lips touched, and a jolt of heat shook through them both.

She backed away quickly. "Good luck with my sister," she said.

"Graciela is your sister?"

She nodded and met his eyes coolly, knowing he would see Graciela and immediately forget her.

He watched her until she went in her house. Then with a strange reluctance, he climbed on his horse and went on his way. To make a long story short, he crossed the Bridge of Lost Truth and arrived at the World of Mall, and went directly to the Limited Continent.

He stood behind a potted palm and watched, wanting to be invisible, although his sunny rays had an irrepressible way of dancing across the tiles and making shoppers look back in curiosity. He searched the face of every girl who entered the Limited Continent, looking for a golden version of dark, passionate Alma, but all he saw was an irritating little blonde posing in the window, staring at her own reflection in the glass. He moved closer and closer to the entrance to the Limited Continent. Salesgirls noticed him and fought to be the one to welcome him inside, and a frumpy obsequious pair bent over him hungrily, but the tiny blonde in the window was oblivious: practicing expressions for when her prince would come.

A pretty salesgirl, already half in love, led him through the aisles of sweaters, jeans, corduroys.

He asked her in hushed tones, "Where is Princess Graciela?"

"Oh her. Like who can miss her?" the girl snapped. "Just look in the window."

The King's heart sank. He approached the window. Maybe he'd been mistaken, he'd seen her at a distance, he'd misjudged.

He entered the window from inside the store and heard her shouting at passersby, "Take a picture, why doncha? It'll last longer! As if! Don't hate me cause I'm beautiful! I mean it's not my fault. And if you'd dress with any taste and lose like twenty pounds minimum, you'd look at least halfway human. Nothing like me of course, but we can't expect miracles in our day and age. At least you won't scare people. Hahaha."

She turned merrily, laughing at her own humor, and saw the King behind her. Close enough to touch. She swallowed. Sun rays blinded her for a moment.

"Hi," he said.


He searched her eyes the way Alma had searched his. He looked for a spark of intelligence, self-awareness, compassion. He looked for life, but Graciela's sapphire-blue eyes were empty, glazed mirrors reflecting only his image.

"Want to meet my parents?" she asked, instantly forgetting the prince who would come someday, anyone, but this fair youth. I'm marrying Gorgeous here, she thought: and Mama and Papa can't say no to me, I always get my way, and we'll set up right here in the window, he's the only man I've seen as gorgeous as I am. Every girl in the Mall will die of envy when they see the two of us together in the window.

He was having a hard time following her thoughts, but he caught enough of the muddled, calculating logic to chill his heart.

"Come with me!" She grabbed his arm. "I want you to meet my parents. Hot khakis by the way."

"You're Alma's sister?" he asked, still bewildered.

She froze. Her dark shadow, the shame and horror of her life, confronting her at the most crucial moment of her destiny. "No," she said quickly. "That's just an ugly rumor being passed around. I mean, look at me. Do we look anything alike?"

He looked her up and down leisurely, took his time to make sure he didn't misjudge her or make a mistake. After a long time he said, "No."

But he found himself swept into marriage by Graciela the Princess of the Limited Continent and her parents. The entire Mall began to plan the festivities of the wedding that would unite two dynasties. The image of Alma began to fade. His marriage to Graciela had been written in the Mall Scriptures. Who was he to disobey the sacred texts?

His wedding day dawned. Despite the sun and warmth, he shivered and tightened the scarf around his neck. He heard the word she had woven for him out of berry juice, dirt, blood and tears. The word sang a haunting melody, yearning and savage: a soul set free. He suddenly remembered the girl in the woods.

Motionless, he stood on the Bridge of Lost Truth as the wedding procession approached. All had gathered to celebrate his wedding, royals and citizens from his own Kingdom of Gap, the Limited Continent, the tribes of Franchise spread to all corners of the world. Even the reclusive Eddie Bauer showed up, smiling behind his dark glasses.

Only the young King of Gap was solemn, restlessly searching the crowd. Because he wore the word around his throat and it pierced through him, he saw Alma at the fringes of the crowd, where the woods began. To his shock she took off her cloak and revealed herself in all her ... darkness. He hesitated a moment: here, away from the woods, in the outside world, so near Civilization and The Mall, she was dark and ugly.

But he must have her.

He left his bride and went to the dark girl. Because he was the Pronouncer of Fashion, the newly crowned King of the Mall, he thereby pronounced her darkness exotic and intriguing, baaad and kewl, hot enough to burn yo mama. He called on representatives of the kingdom to help him, and they rose to the challenge. Gap provided jeans (low-rise, boot-cut), Wet Seal a cute striped sweater, Express accessories no girl should be without, and the Lord of Penney (Old Master J.C. himself) brought her undergarments, while Macy's gave her a facial, Regis a haircut, and Bloomingdale's a silk kimono for those cool nights in the woods.

'Twas done, the wedding performed (and not a dry eye), and Graciela's wicked family banished from The Mall and forced to journey on foot to the next Mall (which was like really far away). The King and his bride, the dazzling Alma, took a lovers' stroll in the woods. Horse, dog and cat surrounded them while her words wove a net of protection around them.

If your heart is pure, you may catch a glimpse of them during the magic hours: 10-9.

Except Sundays, when it's 10-6.

© Ruth Knafo Setton

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