A Festival of Worth
Twinkling lights, music and the smell of roasted peanuts and popcorn filled her senses as she weaved in and out of the crowd. The street was lined, on both sides, with booths. Every booth represented someone. The contest was as old as she could remember, and this year, she would finally participate. The contest was simple. Embellish your booth and yourself, and the town would vote on their favorite. Being voted as the best was the highest honor anyone could receive. Every year, the winner’s name was engraved on the statue in the middle of the town square. There was a long list of names there, from all the years past.
Oh, how she wanted her name there, for all to see.
Money was important because those with money could make their booths look the best. Those with money could buy the expensive decorations, the most beautiful clothes. Those with money had the most friends. Being naturally beautiful helped, also. If one was beautiful or handsome before embellishment, well, then their chances of winning were much higher. She fretted a little, because she didn’t have a lot of money and she was not a natural beauty. She was determined, though, to be creative and make herself and her booth the most beautiful of them all.
This year, she would be noticed by everyone.
Her booth was at the end of the street, where those with less were stationed. The ones with the most money came first, then those with the most friends, then finally, those like her received what was left. The crowd thinned out as she made her way to her booth. The contest was soon, and she wanted to have everything in place, to be ready when the crowd stopped in front of her booth. She came upon her booth and stood there a moment, to take it all in. She knew it wasn’t as beautiful as the ones at the beginning of the street, but she was sure it was the most creative. She had put up decorations made with her own hands and found some twinkle lights in the attic. As for her attire, she had found an old dress in the attic also, and had cleaned its emerald green satin so that not a single stain could be seen. She had sown the hem that had loosened and had added lace around the cuffs. She had painted her eyes with coal and rubbed pink powder on her cheeks.
She had never felt more beautiful.
She heard the crowd as it gathered at the first booth and heard the distant oohs and ahhs over what they saw. She went inside her booth and checked to make sure everything was ready.
Then, she waited.
It seemed to take forever for the crowd to reach her, but finally, they stopped in front of her booth. She held her head high and smiled big. No one spoke as they all took in her and her hand crafted booth. Then someone spoke.
“What a mess!”
The words, they were like a slap in her face. She didn’t move though, as the crowd began to chuckle and point at her hand made decorations...to point at her.
“That’s the most ridiculous booth I’ve ever seen!”
Murmurs of agreement rippled through the crowd.
“And that dress must be a hundred years old!”
She stood there, hands clenched at her side as the crowd threw their insults at her. She refused to respond as they made their way past her booth, shaking their heads and throwing disgusted glances at her. When at last they left, she exhaled a sob and turned away from the street as the tears began to come, unbidden. Never had she felt so unworthy. The pain of rejection began to take root in her heart and she could feel the suffocating tentacles of its hold begin to wrap around her soul.
Why was she so unworthy?
She had worked hard to make this booth beautiful, to make herself beautiful. The tears came in a rush now, and she fell to the ground on her knees, clutching her arms around her middle. She felt so ashamed of herself, of her efforts. She should have done better. She should have worked harder. She was not enough.
She heard a voice say those words, and jumped up, turning to face the person who spoke. A man stood there, alone, in front of her booth, looking at one of her hand made decorations. He reached out and touched it as if it were fragile, or precious. Her anger and hurt welled up, and she reached up and ripped it down, away from his touch.
“Have you come to mock me, too?!”
She shouted at him as tears continued to trace her cheeks. She began ripping down all of the decorations she had made, weeping over her wasted efforts. She ripped them to shreds, dismantling everything she had worked so hard on, as the hurt continued to seep out of her heart. Then, she felt his hand come to rest on the ripped up decoration in her shaking hands.
“Enough,” he whispered, softly.
She looked up at him then, for the first time. She saw concern in his emerald green eyes and his furrowed brow. Her weeping calmed to soft shudders as she stared into his eyes, unable to look away.“Who are you?” she asked in a rasp.
“I’m a friend and I came to see you.” He spoke softly, giving her a gentle smile.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket then, and surprised her with what he did. He began to gently wipe her wet cheeks, smeared now with the coal she had used to try and make herself beautiful. She knew she must look pitiful and she closed her eyes as more hurt welled up inside. This man’s touch was so gentle it left her speechless. All she knew to do was stand there and let him wipe away her tears and her attempts to make herself beautiful.
“There you are.” he said, lifting her chin so she would look him in the face. He smiled at her and it filled his face with light that seemed to bring warmth into her own soul.“There you are.” he whispered.
She exhaled softly, feeling calmed by this man’s touch and smile. “I tried to be the best,” she said. “I tried to make them like me.” Her voice cracked with emotion and she looked down at her feet. The man stepped back, extending her hands in his so he could see her dress. She felt the prickle of fear because of how the others had responded, how they saw her. She held her breath, waiting for him to say what the others had said.
“You are lovely.”
“No!” She responded, with a shake of her head. “I heard them, I saw their reactions. I am not lovely!” He reached up and took her face in both hands.
“You are lovely.” he said, looking into her eyes.
She saw such intensity in his eyes that it silenced any argument. She saw in his eyes that he meant what he said. He saw her as lovely. “How?” she asked, timidly. “How can all this be lovely? I never have been lovely and what I have is not good enough. Those people proved it.” A lone tear trailed her cheek.
“Those people prove nothing. They do not understand true worth.”
He spoke with such conviction that she had no argument. She realized, in hearing his words, that love was exactly what she craved. She wanted not just to be called lovely, she wanted to be loved.
“How do you know these things?” she asked timidly.
He held up his hands for her to see them. There on both wrists, were scars from what looked like very deep wounds. She looked up at him, a bit confused, and then back at the scars. She reached out and gingerly touched them with her fingers.
“I know these things because I once gave love when it was neither wanted nor earned.”
She saw tears in his eyes, and she saw that he believed what he said. He stepped closer then, and raised his scarred hands to her shoulders. Looking into her eyes, he whispered his next words.
“Love cannot be earned, it is a gift.”
His words felt like a salve for her soul. She wanted to believe him...she was desperate to believe him. She did not understand it all, but somehow she knew that this man understood love, acceptance and worth. She saw the proof in his scars that he knew her struggle, but that he had somehow overcome it all. She reached up and grabbed one of his hands and clutching it close, whispered his words...
“Love cannot be earned, it is a gift.”
He nodded with a smile and she smiled back. Then, he slipped his arm around her shoulder, and with a gentle squeeze began leading her away from her handmade booth, where her worth had been based on her ability and appearance. She let him lead her away, far away...
And she never looked back.