For short time she sat at the table looking on, letting her mind run. What was wrong with her? Why did she have to be so plain! It seemed to Anna that she was always the consolation prize when there were no other girls left to dance with. Her delicate dress, the dress she had spent the last days embroidering, was wasted. It seemed that no matter how hard she tried to make herself look pretty, it was always destined to fail. She had never been able to look in the mirror and think of herself as attractive, let alone beautiful. Some days, she even felt horrified by the person she saw looking back, as if since the time she had last seen herself, she had quite forgotten how she looked, absorbed as she had been in creating her latest sketch or poem. "Is that really me?", she would ask herself. She had always felt the ugly duckling of the group and it felt that as time went by, this feeling took hold more and more, like the roots of a weed burrowing deep into the earth.
It is never nice to find oneself sitting alone at a table and to have to look upon others having fun, engaged with each other in fun and merriment, and Anna could bear it no more. She stood from the table and as quietly and subtly as she could, she left the room. Once outside in the fresh air, she felt relief wash over her. It was good to be away from the anxiety and the humiliation that she had been feeling. Her friends would look for her, she knew they would, but she also knew that they would understand and know that she had left on her own. After all, it was not the first time such a situation had occurred. Anna began to walk with no real direction in mind, her feet carried her aimlessly where they would, and her mind wandered in a similar manner.
The sky of late summer was clear and, once away from the lights of the dance, the brightness of the moon cast shadows on the ground. Before long, Anna found herself at the river. Pulled from her reverie by the noise of the rushing water, she walked along the bank of the river until she found a boulder where she could sit. She kicked off her shoes and hitched up the hem of her dress, so that she could bathe her feet in the coolness of the water. She sat there for some time, enjoying the peace, tranquillity and the solitude. Gradually, all traces of the stress from the dance evaporated and Anna began to become herself once more. She lay back, keeping her feet in the water and gazed up at the stars.
She was still laying there some time later when a voice pulled her back into reality.
"Hello. May I join you?"
Anna opened her eyes and looked up into the face of an elderly and kind looking man, who was smiling down at her. He was leaning on the crook of his walking stick, was dressed in plain, grey, woollen trousers and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. On his back, he carried a small pack, and through the straps, he had secured a brown jacket, so that he didn't have to carry it by hand. He continued to smile down on Anna.
"Would you mind if I joined you for a little while?", he asked again. "I'm sorry if I woke you."
"Oh, no. I was not sleeping, I was laying here looking up at the stars and for some moments, I closed my eyes to enjoy the peaceful surroundings. Yes, please sit down if you'd like."
The old man slid the pack from his shoulders and placed it on the ground, before slowly lowering himself down to sit beside Anna. "How is the water?"
"It's lovely and refreshing. Just the thing for a warm, sultry night like tonight."
The old man removed his boots and socks, and placed his feet in the water. The two of them sat there for several minutes, neither wishing to break the silence, perhaps neither knowing what to say to the other. It was the old man who broke the silence first.
"If you don't mind me asking, why aren't you up at the dance? Judging by the lovely dress you're wearing, you look as though you should be there with all of the other young people, not sitting by the river with an old man like me."
The question made Anna feel sad and momentarily, she was unable to hide it, until she recovered her composure. "I was there, but I left. It seems that no one wished to dance with me this evening."
"I find that hard to believe. My eyes my not be as they once were, and if you don't mind me saying it, I know a pretty young woman when I see one. It seems strange that no one would lead you out on to the floor. If I had my day again, I'd have been proud to have a girl such as you on my arm."
Anna smiled. "Thank you", she said, "that is very kind of you. But alas, it is true that no one asked me to dance, and perhaps in the darkness, you do not see me too clearly. I am no spring flower in bloom. I am no butterfly on the breeze. I am the weed in the garden and I am the caterpillar."
Having said these words, she became sad once more and a single tear formed in the corner of her eye, and ran down her left cheek. The old man produced a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Anna.
"My dear, you don't know how wrong you are", he spoke softly. "Inside of every caterpillar is a butterfly waiting to escape. And weeds are a plant just like any other flower. And just like a flower, they play an equally important part in the miracle of life."
"Thank you for the kind words", she turned to the old man and smiled. "but they do not help me to get a dance or make any of the men interested in me." Then she turned away towards the river so that she could hide the tears that had started to fall once more.
The old man watched her face grew sad. He could see the sorrow that she was suffering and he felt pained to see such a young person feeling that way. He wanted to say more, but he remained silent, waiting for the right moment, because he knew that every person needed time to collect their own thoughts, and sometimes the silence spoke more loudly than words ever could.
"It's no use", Anna broke the quiet, "I have to be honest and resign myself to not finding the love that I desire in my life. It's always been like this. I've tried so hard to attract a man, but they are never interested in someone like me. As a young girl, the boys always ignored me. When we would play kiss-chase in the school yard, I was always the last girl to be captured because none of the boys wanted to run after me."
She grew silent again and the old man let her have her silence for a time. "And how did it make you feel when the boys ignored you?"
"I guess I felt that I must be ugly. Just like the duckling in the story. As time went on, whenever I looked in the mirror, I just saw an ugly face staring back at me. A person that I did not know or recognise." Again, she fell silent before continuing. "I'm sorry, you don't want to listen to my silly prattle. I'm sure you've got better things to be doing."
"What better thing could I wish to do, than to sit here under the moon and stars, with my feet in the coolness of the river, and with the company of a lovely young woman?" He smiled, but he was not sure if she could see it.
Anna blushed and was thankful that the old man would not be able to see her scarlet cheeks in the dim light that was cast by the moon. "I'm not used to receiving compliments. I've just been feeling so worthless of late. I was hoping that perhaps by meeting someone at the dance, it would help me recover some of my old spirit and make me feel better."
"I'm sorry to hear that you have been unhappy for so long. And it is never nice to hear someone speaking of themselves so negatively. You are far from worthless my dear. How could someone who possesses such a talent for poetry and drawing be worthless? The problem is that for too long, you have told yourself that you are ugly and worthless and you have made this the truth for yourself. I can tell you, it is not how the rest of world views you. As humans, we manifest on the outside, all that we hold on the inside. As children, we are very vulnerable, we lack experience and knowledge and we are like sponges. We take what we hear and what we experience deep into our hearts, and those things become the beliefs that we hold of ourselves. They become our self-image. These images of ourselves eventually become self-fulfilling prophecies that we play out throughout the rest of our lives. I'm ugly. I'm worthless. I'll never find love. I'll always be alone. I'm not loved." He paused for a moment. "Do you recognise any of what I have said in yourself?"
Anna thought about what the old man had said. Yes, it did make sense. She could see how, as a young girl, she had taken the feelings of rejection and made them the truth for herself. From those feelings of rejection, she had come to the conclusion that she must be ugly. And from being ugly, she had reached the point where she had felt worthless.
"Yes, I can see this", she said. "What you say is very true." It made her feel very sad to realise the truth of what the old man had said, but at the same time, she felt as if a dark cloud had begun to lift and that a light, not seen for many years, now shone through and split the darkness. Knowing that this is what she had done to herself, meant that she could now start to do something about it. "I had not realised until now, that I had done this to myself."
"Yes, the unconscious self does this. It plants a seed in the soul that grows and slowly takes hold of you, filling you with whatever ideas you formulated about yourself. This is why all children need to be nurtured, encouraged, held often and told that they are loved. Without it, self-doubt and worthlessness are created. In adult life, you begin to seek all that which was denied you as a child, from another person. You try to fix yourself by seeking out love from the another person."
The old man paused for a moment and looked away into the river and the darkness, as if remembering his own youth. Anna could see that he was thoughtful and did not wish to interrupt his thoughts. They sat there in silence for a few minutes, as the waters of the river continued to flow. Finally, the old man looked up.
"You have to discover peace and love from within, then seek it from without. Only when you love yourself, only when you have forgiven yourself, only when you have accepted yourself, can you truly find meaningful love. Until that time, you will try to fill the gaps in your own soul using the love of another. Ultimately, that will never prove to be a successful relationship, since you place a responsibility on the other person for fixing you. And that is an unfair burden for them to carry."
"I understand", said Anna, "If I do not love myself first, then how or why would anyone else wish to love me?"
"Yes, that is right", the old man smiled. It was so nice to talk with someone who understood. Love was humankind's greatest gift and at the same time, it so often proved its greatest Achilles' heel. "The way to find true and meaningful love is simply this: always follow your heart." Yes, that was always the best advice in life, the old man mused to himself. It had always served him well. "And now this old man must be going. I still have a distance to travel tonight and it's such a beautiful night for walking."
The old man pulled another handkerchief from a pocket and dried his feet, before replacing his socks and boots, and then he pulled himself to his feet with the aid of his walking stick. Anna offered him back the handkerchief he had given her and he waved it away. "No my dear, you can keep that one. Thank you for sharing the conversation and the river with me."
"Thank you for the talk and the advice. Take care walking in the dark. Goodnight."
"Goodnight Anna", the old man called over his shoulder as he faded into the darkness of night.
Anna was startled. How on earth had he known her name? Had she told him? She could not seem to remember having done so, but it was possible that she had. She sat there for some time, thinking on all that had been said. She replayed the conversation in her mind, remembering the words the old man had spoken. She was determined to do something about her life. To do something about the way she saw herself. Then something else the old man had said struck her as odd. How could he possibly have known about her poetry and drawing? She was sure she had not mentioned those. Who was he? she wondered, as she started her walk back home, under the stars and with the bright moon for company. A smile was now on her lips and the first shoots of a new beginning were taking root in her heart.