Once upon a time… or was it once? Perhaps it was always. Or once in each instance. A few times, even. It may have been just once.
A girl was born into a city of tall gray buildings, dark gray soot, and light gray rain. She was a bright, plump little baby, not gray at all, and loving parents named her Velle. Velle was a delightful child. She had her ups and downs, as all of us do, but her heart was pure, and her words were true. People loved to be near little Velle. Her laughter inspired others to chuckle, though they knew not the reason. The stoniest heart melted at her tenderness.
Little Velle grew. One day, she was fitted with shiny new school clothes and sent off with crisp books under her arm. How eager she was when she reached the courtyard buzzing with games and fun. She wanted to be friends with everyone. But when she asked whether she could play, a tall girl with pigtails shoved her out of the way, and she landed with a terrible splash, smack in the middle of a mirky gray puddle.
“Out of the way!” shouted the girl.
The other children tittered and pointed with nervous laughter. Humiliated tears sprang to Velle’s eyes. She climbed to her feet and ran to the other end of the courtyard, around the corner of the building, where she might cry away from uncaring eyes. When Velle stepped into the building a short time later, a teacher gave her a good scolding for muddying her nice books while children filed past on their merry way inside. Velle tried to protest, but this teacher was not the sort to tolerate excuses.
“A young lady takes responsibility for her actions,” the teacher lectured sternly, raising herself to her impressive height and peering sharply down her nose.
That afternoon, Velle wept into her mother’s arms and begged never to go back.
“Come, come,” Mother soothed, “it will get better. The first day is always hardest. Tomorrow I want my bright and beautiful Velle to hold her head high and walk back into that school like the brave girl I know. Can you do that for me?”
Velle nodded reluctantly.
The second day, however, was no better. Nor the third, nor any after that, for that matter. The girl with pigtails, Lina, had thought up a rhyme in Velle’s honor, which they chanted at her loudly.
Tripped and felly,
Now she’s got mud
On her belly
Velle wept quietly in her solitary bit of courtyard, tucked safely around the corner where nobody went, except for her.
It was one of those days, no different from the others, or perhaps very different indeed… when something most peculiar took place.
Velle sat crying alone, as was usual by now. The dark gray soot that always hovered in the air and the light gray rain from the sky mixed with Velle’s tears, which weren’t gray at all, and covered her small hands with a medium gray crust. It thickened until it was difficult to move her hands at all. She wept more, this time from fear. The dark gray soot and the light gray rain and the not-gray-at-all tears mixed on her dress until it had a layer of medium gray film covering it all over, and it grew stiff. She cried and cried more, and gray, gray, not-so-gray soot and rain and tears combined thicker and thicker, until she could no longer move. Alone and miserable, frozen by the world and her own graying tears, Velle wept until she disappeared.
That day, a statue of a small weeping angel appeared in the school courtyard, around the corner where nobody goes. And Smelly Velly was nowhere to be found.
But we know where she was, don’t we? As Velle could no longer speak, she listened as the world went by. She listened to the children on the playground as they taunted each other and said things they probably didn’t mean, and she wept for the children who had to hear it. And every time she wept her statue grew just a little.
Since the day Velle had gone missing, no one sang her song anymore. She even heard a few of the children say nice things about her as they passed nearby.
“Why didn’t you say that when I wanted to play with you?” she tried to ask, but her mouth was frozen shut.
One day, Lina, the girl with pigtails, came around the corner with tears streaming down her cheeks and she kicked the wall for a while as she cried.
“I hate them,” Lina spat. “I hate them all! I didn’t want to play their stupid game, anyway.” She crumpled against the wall and wept bitterly into her arms.
Velle wished that she could console Lina. She knew how it felt to be left out. It didn’t matter that this was the girl who had started the terrible event that had happened to her. Everyone deserved a chance. Velle thought a small prayer. Not a bedtime prayer or a meal prayer, or even a church prayer, but something more personal.
“Please, I want to help her.”
“How will you help her?” replied a sparrow sitting on a nearby branch.
“I… I don’t know,” Velle replied in her thoughts. “I guess I would start by telling her she doesn’t have to worry about what the others think of her.”
“Hmm. That’s pretty good advice,” sang the bird.
“And that things will get better…” Velle continued.
“You know this from experience, do you?” replied the sparrow.
“Well, I know it in my heart.”
“Indeed,” said the sparrow. “What else do you know in your heart, little one?”
“That she just wants to be loved, and to get things right, like I do. And that she didn’t mean to push me that day, it was an accident. But she was embarrassed, so she acted like she meant to do it. And she couldn’t draw up the courage to apologize to me, so she made up the song. But it hurt her inside every time she sang it, deep down. She kept singing it, though, thinking that seeing me cry would make her stronger and get rid of the pain.”
“Go on,” coaxed the sparrow.
Velle felt a bit of pressure release from her stone prison. Was there a crack? Just the barest room to shift her shoulders? She went on, feeling stronger suddenly.
“But it never did,” she continued. “She didn’t get stronger when she was cruel to me, she felt weaker. She grew new pain. New anger. And she taught her friends to be cruel and angry like herself. Well, now her friends have turned the meanness on her. She thinks she’s alone. She believes nobody could ever love her, because she sees how all the meanness has twisted her up inside.”
Sparrow nodded thoughtfully. “What do you think?”
“She’s not alone at all! You and I are here with her.”
“Is she unloved?”
“No! She can’t be. I… well, she is mean, and the things she says hurt, but somebody must love her.”
“I do,” replied the sparrow, “do you?”
Velle had to consider this carefully. Lina had never been nice to her, but she didn’t like to see her so sad. She tried to imagine what Lina might be like if she weren’t so angry all the time.
“I suppose I could try,” replied Velle. “I guess she acts like that because she hurts so badly, she doesn’t know what to do with the pain anymore.”
“Like you did that day?”
“Yes, but a little different.”
“You froze under the weight of your sadness,” reckoned the sparrow. “I imagine she might burn up from the inside out with the fire of her anger.”
“Oh, I don’t want that to happen!” cried Velle.
“Nor do I,” agreed the sparrow. “What could we do to save her, I wonder?”
“If only I could give her a hug…”
“Why can’t you?” asked the sparrow.
“I’m a statue. I can’t move.”
“I’m a sparrow. I can’t speak.”
Well, this was true. Or was it? It was supposed to be true, but here she was, a girl turned statue having a conversation with a sparrow. What was impossible again?
Velle strained against her captivity.
“I’m made of stone. How do I make stone move?” she asked.
“You are solid stone through and through?” asked the little bird.
‘What an odd question,’ thought Velle. “Well, no, I don’t think so…” she said, trying to determine where the gray crust started and stopped within her, “no, I’m stone on the inside.”
“What are you made of?”
“Um, skin and…”
“No, my dear, I mean, what are you made of? What makes you you? What is it inside there that could move stone?”
“Oh, well,” she began to think. “I’m nice, and I want everybody to be happy…”
“There we go,” encouraged the sparrow. “And you always have faith that things will get better.”
“Yes, that’s true… and I like to be helpful…”
“You do like to be helpful. I find that you always guide your actions with love. Not fear, not anger, not guilt, but love, the strongest of all. Stronger, do you think, than stone?”
“Yes,” Velle said. “Oh yes, absolutely!”
She felt warm inside. Much too warm for the drab gray statue she had been for so long. Tiny cracks formed over her weeping face. Thin slivers crackled around her upstretched hands. Minute fissures laced the folds of her dress and her spirals of hair. More and more the seams grew, and a magnificent light beneath them.
“Is that me?” she gasped.
“That is you,” replied the sparrow. “The real you. Gentle, kind, and stronger than stone.”
Velle realized that she had so much love and strength inside her, there was plenty to share with everyone. Even Lina. She remembered beautiful things about herself that she couldn’t believe she had forgotten. She burst from the thick gray crust in a flash of radiant light, and the tiny pieces of her captivity crumbled about her feet. She surveyed the rubble, unable to imagine how dust and sorrow had managed to hold her in place for so long.
She went to Lina, crumpled in misery against the wall. Lina snuffled and sighed, her anger and pain easing out of her, though she couldn’t think of why. She did not see the radiant angel with arms wrapped warmly around her, nor did she notice that the small stone statue had disappeared. All she knew was that she felt a warmth and belonging in her heart that she could remember somehow, deep down, and had missed dearly.
“I’ll forgive them,” Lina said to herself calmly, “I’ll start fresh. I’ll show them how to play nice.”
The angel gently smiled and rose.
“There is one more thing,” said the angel to the sparrow, and she lifted into the sky with a breath.
She found her mother napping in her chair.
“Don’t worry after me anymore,” she said into Mother’s dream, “I thank you for the gift of life that you gave me, and the loving home you provided. I was never of your world, and I must return now. But I will watch over you always.”
She kissed her mother and softly and went outside.
“Are you ready?” asked the sparrow.
“Was it worth it?” asked the sparrow as they rose into the air.
“It was,” replied the angel.
“But you were so unhappy,” countered the sparrow, “and you believed yourself alone and unloved.”
“Not always,” the angel mused. “I was loved, and I’d had friends before arriving at that school. I forgot all that love, though, when I was confronted with messages of anger and fear. Should I have remembered those parts of life that helped me to be strong, such as love, compassion, joy, I might not have frozen.”
They rose together, piercing a brief and welcome hole in the cloud cover. People all over the city stopped and gazed at the dazzling sun stealing through in thick swathes of rich golden light.
“And now I know what they need more than anything else,” the angel said after some thought.
The city grew somehow less gray from that day forward. Trees fluffed out between the tall gray buildings, ridging every street with petally pinks and luscious greens and autumnal auburns and golds. Rich, colorful flowers sprung out of the soil, between cracks in pavement, simply everywhere.
Lina grew into the kindest child anyone had ever known. She always seemed to have love and comfort to spare. She included everyone in her joy, no matter what others thought. The other children learned quickly that they enjoyed being around her better than anyone else. And she happily taught them the secret she had learned that day… that the very strongest person is not the one who causes the most suffering, but the one who is not afraid to love.
And Velle’s mother, well she lived a long and blessed life. She remembered her dream when she awoke, and it brought peace to her heart every day. There was just this one funny little thing… or maybe it was a large thing. Still funny. And one. It may have been a medium thing. Perhaps it was nothing… but from that day forward, she found that she could not pass a statue of a child without leaving a tender kiss on its forehead, no matter whose museum or rooftop or bridge or back yard the statue resided in… but that’s a different story. Or perhaps a few. Possibly all. But maybe just one.
I would like to thank my patrons at https://www.patreon.com/wcmcclure: Dustin; Nicole; Rainy City Ukulele School; Stephanie; and my World Shapers, Ann, Jess, Natalie, Barney and Diane, Mike and Leigh. You make this world sparkle.