Once upon a time, on a summer's eve as the moon rode full in the evening sky, a baby girl was born to tired farmers on the edge of a tiny village. The father passed with wonder as he beheld his newborn daughter nestled in her mother's arms.
"She is so fair," he marveled, "skin as white as the moonlight shining on our fields."
"It is said," the mother replied softly with a tired smile, "that the child of summer's first moon is blessed by the Moon herself. Perhaps," she paused to smile tenderly down at the infant, "our child has been so blessed, or perhaps not. Time will only tell."
The baby giggled happily and waved her tiny limbs towards the face of the huge, friendly moon who peered through the open window.
And so the child, Alessa, they called her, grew. She had no particular beauty in the eyes of the world, but in charm and liveliness, she had been richly gifted. Her sunny smile could light up a room, while notes of her cheerful giggle were heard even during chore time, and she developed an insatiable curiosity about everything around her.
One night, as she was rising four, a strange dream awoke her from her peaceful slumber. Delighted, she padded out of her bed and over to the great fireplace where her parents sat mending by it's light.
"Papa, I had a dream that the moon smiled an' laughed with me, an' then it took me by the hand an' it danced with me!"
Her father chuckled without looking up.
"Sounds like a good dream. If you go back to bed, you might just slip back into it."
"But, oh! Papa, Mama, look! It's real!"
Her parents turned as one to see what caused the joyous note in their daughter's voice, and gaped. There, twirling in a patch of moonlight that had snuck in through the low windows, was their daughter. And yet not their daughter, for how changed she was! Her skin glowed radiant and clear, her hair twirling in dusky clouds around her as though the night had come alive within it; her eyes alight with the purest silver the earth could offer. But it was her dress that astounded them the most, of instead of the tattered nightshirt she had worn to bed, she was clothed in a dress of purest white and finest silver, layered like some exotic flower of the night and flowing around her twirling figure like moonlight that had found physical form at last.
"The moon's gift! So it is real…" the mother murmured, enchanted by the sight.
"How can this be?" Her father questioned, dumbstruck.
"What matter is that it is," the mother replied, firmly. "Alessa, come along! We're going to go over to the Carrie's house."
"Is that wise?"
"Would they believe us any other way?" she countered.
"I suppose not."
Her mother scooped the little moon child up and ran to their nearest neighbor's house. Alessa, unconcerned by any grownup ideas such as moon gifts or beauty, simply danced under the light of the full moon as her mother showed off the strange sight to every neighbor within walking distance.
At the final stop, a little hut just over the rise from their own home, a small boy her own age crept quietly from his bed to see what all the fuss outside was about. He slipped past the chattering women and crept shadow-like towards the moonlit girl. Alessa stopped dancing when she saw him, and shyly clasped her hands behind her back.
"'Ello," she whispered.
"Um… hi," said the boy, eyes wide. "Are… are you part of the m-moon that fell down to the ground?"
"No, I'm a girl," she giggled. "The moon just wanted to dance with me tonight!" Both looked bashful for a moment.
"Can… can we dance? That looked like fun!" Alessa's face lit up at Nathan's words, and the two began giggling and laughing as they danced with the wild abandon of children under the moon's sweet rays.
The next morning found Alessa her plain self again, dressed in the same ratty nightshirt she'd gone to bed wearing. The loss only bothered her for a moment though, before the sound of hens in the yard and tantalizing smells of breakfast drew her back into her usual world. Her father looked startled when she appeared as her normal self, but her mother nodded thoughtfully.
"Only one night of beauty, then it fades away. 'Tis a poor gift in my opinion, for what use is it? Yet still, she's been blessed in some small way. I wonder if it will happen again."
More years past, and Alessa remained her usual self with no moonlit transformations to trouble her young mind. She was now a rambling child of eight, forever climbing trees or running through fields or, to her parent's horror, speaking bareback rides on the old farm horse. All of this was done with her cohort and shadow, Nathan. The two children had become inseparable since their moonlit dance to the point where it was a common occurrence for the children's chores to be done as a joint effort. Both sets of parents were apt to joke they had gained a second child on that moonlit evening.
One summer evening, both children were atop the stone wall separating their fields, chatting as they waited for the fireflies to appear. Alessa held a tiny gray kitten in her arms, a rescue from a village farmer who had tried to dispose of the runt in the river, only to be met by Alessa's outrage and fierce eyes insisting he hand the poor mite over to her. The unwanted creature was full to the brim with milk and purring contentedly in her arms as the first of the glowing creatures began to wink gracefully into existence in the twilight.
"They look like tiny drops of sunlight rising up from the earth," Alessa commented, dreamily.
"Maybe they are," Nathan replied. "Maybe the sun has too much light during the summer and the extra goes into the fireflies!"
"Like thousands of little suns!" Alessa laughed in joy at the idea. "Nate, hold Ohno, I want to dance with the sun drops tonight!"
Nathan held out his hands for the little kitten, and watched with a wondering smile as his friend moved gracefully among the glowing, flickering creatures. Alessa began to hum a lively tune as she twirled, oblivious to the moon sliding over the horizon, sending it's soft glow over the land until it lit her from behind in a pool of molten silver.
Gasping aloud, Nathan watched as the moonbeams wrapped themselves lovingly around his friend, changing her once more into the beautiful moonlit child he had seen so long ago. Alessa did not notice at first, she was still dancing for the sheer joy of it among the fireflies, her hair mingling with the dusk sky, the moonbeam dress causing the dew to glitter and sparkle like diamonds as she passed by. When she finally looked down and saw her altered state, she stared wonderingly at Nathan.
"I thought this was only a dream from when I was little!"
"I thought so too!" Nathan was awestruck. "You do look like a dream though."
"I feel like a dream," she twirled with a smile. "I think I could dance right into the moon's arms tonight! Let's not go back just yet. I want to stay here with the fireflies and the moon! And so she did.
When the children finally ran back to the house, Alessa laughing and breathless, her parents stared in wonder at the bright figure that stood before them.
"See Mama? The moon made me beautiful again!" Alessa exclaimed.
"So it did my love!" her mother replied, stunned.
"Aye, the moon has made you into the fairest maiden in all the land," her father said, gruffly.
But Nathan said nothing. The glow Alessa exuded hurt his eyes, and he turned away quietly to trek back to his own house in the welcome darkness. No matter how hard he blinked, the glow of Alessa's light still left spots in his eyes, and shook his head, frustrated. It seemed that now two Alessa's stood before him, on the dazzling moonchild, the other his playmate and friend.
"Why did you change her?" he shot bitterly at the moon, now riding high in the sky. "She was fine the way she was." But the moon said nothing, and Nathan fell asleep that night to troubled dreams.
The next morning, Alessa awoke to find she was her ordinary, plain self again. Choking back tears, she fled the little house and ran to her spot, a tiny hollow of grass and flowers that bordered their fields. Nathan found her there sometime later, still crying.
"What's wrong?" He asked, as he slid into the hollow to wrap an arm around her.
"I'm… I'm not…" she choked, "I'm not pretty an-anymore! The moon t-t-too-ook it back!" She cried even harder.
"So?" Nathan asked with the devastating honesty of a young boy. He was quietly relieved his friend was back to normal.
"So?" Alessa shot up, tears streaming down her face. "I'm ugly without the moon's gift. It makes me pretty. I want to be pretty!"
Nathan shifted awkwardly. "Well, I think you're pretty great just as you are."
"But I'm not pretty."
"So what. You can still out-climb me up any tree, you practically talk to animals 'cause I don't know how else they trust you so much, an' you stood up to that mean ol' farmer who was tryin' to drown Ohno. That's better than being pretty any day."
Alessa looked up, tears abated. "You don't care that I'm not pretty?"
"That's what I just said!" Nathan shook his head at her. "C'mon, you're still my friend no matter what you look like. You done, or would'ja like to sit here and cry all day?"
Alessa shook her head with a watery smile.
"Good." Nathan scrambled up and held out his hand. "Let's get our chores done so we c'n go fishin' later!"
The rest of the day Nathan made sure his friend was to busy to remember her pain, a plan which worked rather well it must be admitted. Alessa soon recovered from her grief and moved on with life as she'd known it. But every time she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her heart broke, just a little, over what she had lost.
And so, both children grew as children do, like weeds just after the rain. Both shot up in height, though much to Alessa's frustration, Nathan remained taller than she. They flew around in an endless cycle of farm chores, school, and stealing bits of time to be away with each other. Nathan had discovered that he was useless with traditional plants farming, but had quite the knack with animals and was planning on entering his prize calf in the fair at the town several miles away. Alessa had taken over the family garden plot with now sported magnificent blooms and latent vegetable pants, where once only scraggly, woe-begotten plants had lived. Ohno, very much alive and well, patrolled the plot like it was his job, and kept Alessa's flock of hens firmly in check. The two children would still get together on the old stone wall at dusk and talk as they watched night spread over their valley. On the nights when the full moon rose Alessa would glance sadly at herself, then back at the moon, and let out a little sigh. Nathan observed this, but said nothing, the sadness in his eyes hidden by the darkness.
One night as Alessa's twelfth birthday approached, the whole village was gathered in the square for the wedding of one of their village girls to a young man of some fortune from the town. There was feasting and dancing and merriment throughout the evening and well into the night with joyous village folk enjoying the break from monotonous work and the townsfolk letting down their guard to join with the country party.
Nathan and Alessa had hunkered down in a corner of the square with their now empty plates of dessert and were watching the dancing with shining eyes.
"Come on Nate, just one dance?"
"No, Les, I refuse to make a fool of myself out there!"
"But just look at them," Alessa's eyes were full of the whirling dancers, "they just seem to fly across the grass!"
Nathan laughed, a sound stuck somewhere between the child he'd been and the man he was growing into.
"That doesn't change the fact that I'd look like one of your chickens trying to fly out there!"
"Oh fine, be a stick in the mud," Alessa jumped up with a flounce. "I'm going to dance, right here, and you'll just have to watch me!"
Nathan leaned back on his arms and laughed as his friend began twirling about the growing dusk, illuminated from behind by the lamps and lanterns whose flickering light filled the square. Quite suddenly, the light behind Alessa changed from the glowing gold of firelight, to the soft silver of moonlight. He gasped, and staring down the street saw the edge of the full moon rising over the farthest field.
Alessa, for the first time, noticed the change. She stopped dancing to stare down at herself as the moonbeams engulfed her and then fell away to reveal the stunning moonlit girl they'd created.
"No…" Nathan murmured. "Not again."
The whole crowd behind them in the square gradually stilled and fell silent as they gaped at the beautiful girl now standing in their midst. Far to the side, the cup Alessa's mother had been holding slipped from her grasp and shattered on the hard packed earth. Whispered began circulating.
"So it is true!"
"The gal really was blessed by the moon."
"Just look at her, have you ever seen anything like it!"
"So plain by day, yet this?"
"So beautiful, who would have thought."
"The moon's magic must be strong indeed to make her this beautiful."
The whispers ran around the crowd, but Alessa was frozen to the spot, staring down at the white, flowerlike dress that glowed as though crafted from moonbeams.
The awkward stillness was broken when a young town lad approached Alessa with his hands out.
"Please," he asked, "may I have this dance?"
Alessa blushed as she looked up at him, which only added to her beauty. "I would like that."
The music swelled behind them again, and the two danced off into the crowd, leaving Nathan alone in the dark corner, watching wistfully after them. Alessa never lacked a partner for the rest of the night as every young boy there clamored for the honor of dancing with this moonlit creature. She did look for Nathan frequently, but could never catch more than a glimpse of him before someone whirled her away into another dance. The party lasted late into the night, until Alessa's parents insisted on taking her back home as she was falling over in exhaustion.
The visitors took back the story of the moonlit girl to the town where it spread like wildfire. The streets were alive with the tale, young girls casting sighs as the moon rose at night and young men secretly wishing their beloved were as beautiful.
But in Alessa's hometown, life went on as it always had. She awoke the next morning to find that, predictably, she was herself again, and after crying some bitter tears she rallied and set off to school with her head held high and her heart full of the attentions paid her the night before. The afternoon, however, would find her curled up in the woods with tears running down her cheeks. While she may have rallied to her changed state, the townsfolk had not and their whispers followed her everywhere.
"Oh look, she's back to normal."
"Look at that poor lamb, she holds her head so high though the beauty has left her."
"Heh, only beautiful for one night it seems. Pity."
"More like a moon curse if you ask me, what a pathetic change."
"To have only one night of beauty, 'tis a terrible thing to befall a young girl if you ask me."
Her schoolmates were even less kind.
"Hey ugly, can't catch anyone's eyes now, can you?"
"Haha look at her, guess the moon decided you weren't worth it after all!"
"Is that mud on her face, or freckles, can anyone tell?"
At recess, she took her chance and ran for the woods, followed by an unnoticed shadow that had detached itself from the schoolhouse wall.
"Les," Nathan whispered, sitting down beside her in the dappled sunlight and slipping his hand onto her shoulder. She jerked away.
"Go 'way Nate," she sobbed.
"No," he responded, simply.
"Why. You can't want t' hang out with an ugly thing like me."
"What makes you think you're ugly?" Nathan's voice was still calm, but his eyes had grown weary and drawn.
"Everyone! You heard what they've been saying all day." She turned to face him, eyes flashing angrily. Nathan only smiled sadly at her, pulling a worn handkerchief from his pocket and offering it to her.
"Well, then they are blind." Alessa, in the middle of wiping smudged tears off her face, only grimaced.
"You're a bad liar, Nate."
"What's your favorite flower?" he asked, abruptly. Alessa stared at him for a moment before answering.
"Um… those red and yellow coneflowers up on the heath in the summer."
"Not a rose?" Nate pressed. Alessa wrinkled her nose at him.
"No," she said, flatly. "They're too pretty and too… cultivated," she gave a momentary flash of a smile at using that vocabulary word correctly. "They're not wild enough for me."
"But most people like roses better than anything. They say they're the flower of love." If Alessa had been looking up, she would have spotted a rogue twinkle in Nathan's eyes.
"Not me," she said, flatly.
"Then," Nathan said quietly, "think of it this way. All those people out there being mean today? They only like you when you're a rose and they turn on you the minute you turn back into your usual wildflower self. But that doesn't mean you aren't just as beautiful as a wildflower, it's just, a, a different type of beauty, an', an' not one that many people can appreciate."
Alessa finally looked up, speechless, and embraced him tightly. No words were needed between the two old friends, and they sat like that for a long time. When they finally left the woods, Nathan kept her busy for the rest of the day, and as he left her on her front stoop in the twilight, she whispered a quiet "thank you" which Nathan carried home in his heart light a warm drop of sunlight.
Several more years passed and the rumor of the moonlit girl spread far and wide, until at last it reached the ears of the prince of the land. The Prince was a young man who found pleasure in filling his castle with the most beautiful things in the land, and when he heard the rumors of an ordinary girl who became a moonlit beauty, he was plagued with curiosity.
Riding out across the land, he began scouring all the small villages for the moon-blessed girl. After many fruitless nights and useless leads, he finally came into Alessa's village and was directed towards her hut. Alessa and Nathan were out on one of their wild, horseback rambles through the countryside, so it was that Alessa's mother was alone when hoof beats sounded in the yard. Popping outside to tell her daughter off for being late to dinner, Alessa's mother was astonished when she beheld who it really was, and bobbed an awkward curtsy at her distinguished guests.
The Prince explained his quest, and the mother gazed at him, astonished, before glancing at three scrawled notes on the kitchen doorway, each older than the last, and smiling. She informed the prince that she was fairly certain her daughter would undergo the same transformation in a year's time. The Prince, his eyes alight with anticipation, requested that on the night of her transformation, Alessa attend a ball that he would host in town so that all could witness her beauty. Flushed with the family's good fortune at being recognized by such an exalted figure as the Prince, the mother happily agreed to this plan and the Prince left, promising to send her details when the time drew nearer.
Still stunned by the Prince's visit, Alessa's mother rallied quickly with new plans and new ideas. She would not, if it were to be helped, send her daughter unprepared into the presence of such a man. After consulting with her rather hesitant husband, a letter was dispatched to the big town with a request to and old friend of hers. When the answer returned favorably, only then did she take Alessa aside and inform her not only of the Prince's visit and request, but also that in a day's time Alessa would be off to a girl's school in town to learn manners and culture so she would not make a fool of herself at the ball.
Alessa's eyes sparkled with delight. The Prince thought her beauty worthy of a royal ball! Perhaps, just perhaps, he would… and with that she fell headlong into the daydreams that so many young ladies indulge in, of princes and balls and beautiful gowns and falling in love. She slipped away to say goodbye to Nathan that night, bubbling over with excitement and wild fantasies. Nathan's face merely became more and more drawn with every passing moment, until after they had parted with promises to write often, he turned away and wept bitterly for the loss of his friend.
The year passed, at least to Alessa, quite quickly. Day by day she was becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the cultured town girls and shedding the rural farm girl she had been. She was made a pet of the school, the teachers spending extra time on her lessons thanks to her impending presentation at the ball, and the headmistress, who was an old friend of her mother's, taking her out on excursions to practice what she had been taught. All this she relayed to Nathan in sporadic letters, the length and irregularity of which did nothing to ease his pangs of loss. He threw himself into the care of his animals, trying to bury his pain, only to be assaulted with loss at the sight of a firefly in the night or a red and yellow coneflower nodding it's head in the meadow.
As the day drew nearer, invitations were sent out to all the most notable people of the land, bidding them to come and behold an extraordinary beauty. Nathan was startled to come in from the fields one evening to find an invitation of his own laying on the table, with a handwritten note scrawled on the envelope.
Nate, you have always been my best friend. I want you here for this night. Please come.
Nathan hesitated for only a moment, before scrawling off,
Of course I'll be there. - Nate
He then turned his attention to mending his best clothing for the upcoming evening.
The evening finally arrived. The ball was to commence an hour after moonrise, first to make sure that the anticipated transformation actually happened, and second to give the ladies time to make Alessa presentable once the transformation took place. Within the girl's school, everyone waited with baited breath as the moon slipped slowly over the horizon. Moment's later Alessa was bathed in it's light, no longer herself but shrouded in the beautiful glory the moon bestowed upon her. The women gasped for a moment, before turning their attentions to making her even more beautiful.
When at last the ballroom doors opened to admit her, the whole assembly turned to behold the moon-blessed girl. She stood framed in the doorway, seemingly alight from within with the moon's silvery glow as her fantastic dress shimmered and danced in the torchlight that left golden highlights upon her beautifully styled inky hair. Her eyes and cheeks had been touched with makeup until they shone as thought she was a princess from a foreign land, and to complete the image, a strand of milky white stones was draped around her neck, shimmering like moonlight caught in the dew.
The Prince, with wonder written across his face, approached her, kissed her hand as he bowed to her, and then escorted her into the assembly.
All that night Alessa was surrounded by admires, both men and women alike, and based in their praise of her beauty. She chatted coolly with royalty, conducted herself in a manner than thrilled her high-class guests, and danced the night away. She was breathless with delight, feeling as though all of her dreams had come together in a cacophony of joy on this one glorious night.
Nathan, feeling horribly out of place, stuck to the shadows. He wanted so desperately to talk to his friend, or even to see her for longer than the glimpses he was able to steal, yet found himself unable to do so because the crowd pressed itself around Alessa so. Depressed, yet reluctant to break his promise, he slunk quietly into the shadow of a marble pillar where he stayed for the rest of the evening, wondering if Alessa even missed him.
As night waned and dawn approached, the Prince drew Alessa onto a small balcony where they could be alone as he praised her beauty to the skies and recited poems of his own creation celebrating her radiance. Alessa was beside herself, the Prince, the Prince of all the land, was struck with her beauty! Her heart overflowed in bubbling joy as she blushed and responded the best she could to his praises.
Neither one noticed the lightening of the sky that heralded the dawn until the rim of the sun thrust itself over the horizon, a wash of gold spreading over the land and casting the shadows of night away. It touched Alessa gently, almost sadly, and in a moment the moon's magic had slipped away leaving Alessa standing there, the same plain girl she had always been. The makeup on her face and the string of moonstones around her neck where the only things left to bear witness to her beauty of the night before.
The Prince gasped when he saw the transformation, and, quite suddenly, hardness filled his eyes where a moment before had been softness and wonderment.
"Why, you are nothing but a common farm girl! I had hoped you'd at least be tolerably pretty when the transformation was over. Apparently not."
Alessa stammered out a few syllables, trying to defend herself.
"Well, I suppose the ball was still worth it to see the moon's gift, even if only for a night." The Prince now eyed her coldly. "My, what truly ugly thing you are. I'm shocked the moon could change you that much. It's like you're not even the same person." He eyed her one more time, shaking his head in disbelief. "Unbelievable. Goodbye, moon wench."
And with that, he turned heel and left. The remaining assembly turned at the Prince's outburst and beheld the now ordinary girl standing there on the balcony, before turning their backs on her as well. For what place did ordinary farm girls hold in the busy, indulgent life of nobles?
As the shock of the abrupt end to her dream-like evening overcame her, Alessa fell to her knees sobbing violently. She jerked the string of gems from around her neck and flung them into the wall, not caring that some shattered on impact. Her radiant night was over, in the cruelest way possible. To be rejected so utterly after being adored so greatly is a heartbreak no one should ever face. Alessa's heart wrenching sobs continued as dawn grew in the sky; until soft footfalls and a light touch on her shoulder and her realize someone had come to her.
"Les." The quiet, familiar voice held out her name like a lifeline. "Les, Les… oh my Alessa, I am so sorry." He knelt beside her as she threw her arms around him, tears wetting his jacket. For several minutes they stayed in that mutual embrace, Alessa still sobbing and Nathan wishing desperately for even an ounce of the Prince's eloquence so he could comfort his friend. Finally, the words came in the swell of his own heart.
"He's wrong, you know," he said, stroking her hair, "you are not common and you are not ugly."
"Ho-ow c-c-c-an you sa-a-ay that?" Alessa hiccupped into his chest. "You-you've seen what I ca-a-an look li-ike, you-you can't call, m-m-me pretty n-now."
"Yes, I can," he asserted quietly. Nathan paused for a moment, and stroked her cheek gently. "Do you remember what I told you the day after that wedding in the square? When the village was being cruel about what you looked like?"
"Ye-es," she hesitated without looking up, "you, you ca-a-lled me a wildflower r-r-rather than a-a-a rose."
"I did," he said, softly. "The Prince, he only loved you for the brief moment you were a rose. I… Alessa. Les. Look at me."
Alessa raised her rimmed eyes to his, and was stunned by the love shining out of their depths.
"Les, I love the wildflower far more than any rose. I've seen the real you, all your real beauty, the way you drink in a sunrise or how you dance wildly with the fireflies, or the joy in your face as you spot a falling star. Your… your spirit, your love of all living things, your sheer joy in life, your stubborn tenacity in coaxing plants to grown, or the way you fight for the underdog; those are the things that make you beautiful, not some stupid trick of the moonlight. And…" Nathan faltered and looked away as Alessa gazed, amazed, at him.
"… and?" she whispered, a hope igniting in her heart.
"And… I love you," he finally choked out, not daring to look at her. "I… I always have."
Alessa's heart gave a terrific leap as feelings which had remained confused and unnoticed for so long finally came to light. The cruel words of the Prince, her shattered daydreams, none of it mattered now. She gently put a hand to his face, and he finally looked down at her. Alessa's smile, still crooked with disappointment, yet glowing in some strange way, gave him hope.
"I… I love you, too." Nathan's face broke into the widest smile Alessa had ever seen upon it with her words. Still smiling like a fool, he drew them both up to their feet.
"Dance with me," he implored her.
"Dance with me!" A rogue twinkle was alight in his eyes, how had she never seen it before? Or perhaps she had, but she had never fully appreciated it until this moment.
"I thought you couldn't dance!" she exclaimed, brushing tear tracks off her cheeks with her rough sleeve.
"I still can't," he said with a smile, "but you can dance well enough for the both of us, can't you?" He placed his arms around her waist, so gently and so sweetly, and the two began to dance. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or perhaps the sun felt that the moon had be treacherous in her gift to the girl, but it seemed that the golden dawn filling the empty hall wreathed the two figures in a greater beauty than the moon's gift had ever granted.
And so, they lived happily ever after.
For you see, to live happily every after requires just one thing: to be loved, deeply and completely by another, and to love another deeply and completely in return. And in their love for each other, Alessa and Nathan were richer than all the kings of the world.