By Melissa Marni
On a certain street in Lisbon, cobblestones line a narrow, serpentine roadway and when it rains, the stones turn a brilliant shade of dark blue. Somewhere along this street, (exactly where is hard to say), once lived an old, cantankerous woman and her niece, who was described by all accounts to be the most beautiful of any creature found along this blue, cobblestoned way.
“Belinda, you’re not as pretty as they think,” the old woman would often tell her, and the quiet niece would only nod and agree, for what else was there to do? The old woman usually followed this with a quick cackle; satisfied her point had taken heed inside the girl’s mind. Or, if she was feeling especially didactic, she might add another nugget or two: “Remember, my poor Belinda, anyone who says otherwise is either stupid or blind, so we must pity their idiocy or detail for them the unpleasant features about your face that they cannot see.”
“Yes, Aunt Mirada,” her niece would say and retreat to her room with a golden-haired bow. In her small, half-empty space beside the mudroom, she’d read the only book her aunt ever allowed. It was a cookbook of autumn squash—Gourdes to Engorge—helpful in the fall months but useless once the weather warmed and the squash vines turned brown and crusty.
“Pour in half the flour and mix until crumbly but not quite firm …” Belinda might read.
Then her aunt would call out for her to sew or clean or wipe mucous from Mirada’s chin and Belinda would shut the book, letting out a beautiful, languid sigh.
The maiden’s beauty—wide, navy eyes, rosebud lips, buttermilk skin—might not have been such a point of sore contention for Mirada had the old woman not been struck by a loveless jealousy that boiled from below her puss-filled elbow warts and inside the cavernous pock marks dimpling her cheeks. Aunt Mirada was, from fleshy forehead to yellowing toenails, the very picture of ugly; she embodied the word in both body and spirit with an unbending bravado that would make even the wickedest of witches proud.
“Looks are but the devil’s sorcery on an unsuspecting fool,” the old woman many-a-day would holler as Belinda returned from reading squash recipes on her blanket-less bed by the room for mud.
Except here now we have a new day, pregnant with the air of possibility, when a thin, November breeze shrieked along the stubby homes hugging the street and the sounds of barking dogs skidded against the mosaic of blue stone tiled on the ground. And this is the very day, bright and cloudless, that Prince Gristhede of Kalopatia found himself walking the cobblestone road without his dutiful horse, asking a slow-moving lady, “Have you seen a white mare come by your way this afternoon?”
No, the old woman hadn’t seen anything but blue stone and the wind, she told him.
“How can you see wind?”
“I can do more than that,” the old woman spit out. “And less.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t,” she said to the regrettably handsome man—sorcery of the devil!—just as Belinda came galloping down the street.
“Aunt, you forgot your shawl …”
The Prince of Kalopatia turned to Belinda, coughing at her beauty, which was so powerful it caused him to lose his next three breaths and choke on a medium-sized wad of spit.
“Hello,” he managed.
“Hello,” Belinda sweetly replied.
“What’s your name?”
“This is my niece, Belinda, and she loathes speaking with strangers,” the old woman interrupted. “What, may we ask though little we care, is your name?”
“Ha! What a snobbish thing to call yourself! Gristhede! Like Camelot but less rich-sounding or bold. What are you, a prince?”
“Yes.” His answer was delivered with the sharp-edged bluntness of truth.
“Nonsensical,” the old woman continued. “Royalty is the greatest sin to freedom.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” the prince said with a kind laugh and a wink at Belinda who blushed in return.
“At least we agree,” said the old woman. “So, you can be a prince and I can see the wind and my niece can catch the stars and nobody can know where your horse has flown, which only leaves us with good day to you, silly prince of …”
“You can catch the stars?” The prince asked Belinda, ignoring the rest of Mirada’s blistery invective.
“I … I don’t know.”
“Well I do,” Aunt Mirada discharged in a voice taut as a pimple filled to the brim with un-popped juice. “Though catching stars pales in comparison to the feats you can so dazzlingly do, my prince.”
“Like losing a horse and possessing a name half the town could never pronounce. I would say you’re a perfect model of royal indignation but I’ve got more dignity than that.”
As if on cue, a white mare—hair pure and shiny—trotted toward the group with rhythmic clip-clops on the blue cobblestones.
“My horse!” The prince shouted and in the same moment, halted the silvery-haired animal with a tug at its mane, next scooping up Belinda and heaving them atop the beast.
“Can you really catch the stars?” The prince asked after they were both securely in the saddle, the arms-flailing, cursing old woman a distant figure of warts, pock marks and boils in the backdrop of the little Lisbon town disappearing behind them.
“No,” Belinda replied. “Do you mind?”
“My lady, I would have rescued you from that evil woman believing far less.”
“Yes,” he said. “With you at my side, I’m the one catching stars today.”
And so Prince Gristhede of Kalopatia and the beautiful Belinda rode together on the prince’s white horse, traveling with the bubbly winds of new adventure as the last of the blue stones faded away.