Princess Jade of Cainan knelt on the woven rug and grasped the old woman’s warm, crinkled hands. The hands shook in hers and the watery eyes steadily gazed into her own, pouring deep sadness into Jade’s soul.
“He doesn’t remember me.”
A flood of despair. A fierce love. The emotions poured into Jade. The wavery voice continued.
“Sixty years we have lived side by side, serving our people, leading our family, enduring great loss and knowing greater joy.” The old woman drew a ragged breath. “It is all gone. He asks to go home. I cannot comfort one who believes me a stranger at worst, a nursemaid at best.”
Jade gripped the old woman’s hands tight as she gazed into her eyes and the emotions deepened, the great feeling of loss filling her senses. Jade swallowed, throat raw. “I am sorry, Giselle.”
The afternoon sun slanted through the tent flaps, outlining Giselle’s dark brown face in golden light, the wind gently lifting the edges of the deep pink shawl around her head. The old woman stayed sitting there, continuing to search Jade’s eyes as if she were looking for one of the silver jewels missing from her shawl. How many times today had Jade felt a similar wave of sorrow through another’s eyes?
The old woman began speaking of memories, of times past, of the love she and her husband shared and the lives they built. For a few moments, a light broke through the pain and Jade felt the sweetness of the love the old woman held. Jade new better than to fully embrace these positive feelings, because the sorrow always returned, more bitter still after the wave of light. Giselle had been speaking for several minutes when Jade pulled her eyes from the old woman’s to glance over her shoulder, partly for momentary relief from the deluge of emotion and partly to see who next awaited her presence. As she glanced up the eyes of the man standing just beyond the tent opening flicked to hers and she felt him before she truly saw him.
Dark, intense anger. Deep hurt turned to rage.
Her body reacted with a violent shiver, kneeling there on the floor with the old woman’s hands still in her own. The pressure of his anger accelerated her heart beat. The injustice he was suffering pulsed in her soul. Eyes still locked on his, she knew his burdens had become too much, felt the weariness emanating from his soul.
She tore her eyes away and back to the old woman in front of her.
“He doesn’t even know my name anymore.”
Jade breathed, unaware she had stopped. She broke her eyes away a second time, suffocating under the despair of the old woman’s gaze locked onto hers.
“I am sorry, I- I must go.” She stood, helping the old woman to her feet. “Naya, please see she gets home safely.”
The girl nodded and came to grasp the old woman’s arm to steady her.
Jade turned and hurried through the back curtain of the tent into her own quarters. She heard a yell behind her as the man who had been waiting hours out in the hot sun realized she was leaving. Jade did not turn back. She could not bear one more today, certainly not one so intense as he.
Jade collapsed on her pallet and breathed, letting the negative emotions seep out with each breath and embracing the familiar numbness. She could not cry. She no longer cried; it no longer helped. Nothing eased the pain, the burden of the deep empathy she felt while looking into another’s eyes. Nothing stopped the wave of emotions that overtook her, crowding out her own thoughts and feelings. Yes, when she broke eye contact it lessened, but the pain she saw, felt, in each of them was so strong the echo of that pain continued long into the night.
This was how she spent her days, letting others pour their pain into her. How many stories had she heard like Giselle’s? Different in particulars, but similar in hurt, heartbreak, despair. It was her constant duty to absorb other’s pain, sorrow having become her most consistent companion. Jade took a shuddering breath and closed her eyes to the afternoon sun, to the people she led, to the world.
Jade awoke suddenly, asleep then not. It was dark, the moon providing some light through the flaps of the tent. She tried to swallow but her throat was too dry. Jade rose and grabbed the full pitcher – Naya must have come in and filled it- pouring it into a small wooden cup. She stood studying the woven fabric of the tent, drinking in the cool water.
A soft rustle sounded behind her, causing her to turn to the tent entrance. The flaps moved slightly but all she could see was the dark desert plane. Jade took a step forward.
Wind brushed the flaps again and Jade sighed, turning away. She finished her drink and replaced the cup, returning to her pallet.
Her soul ached. It felt… bruised. Jade had become accustomed to this feeling, as it never really went away. Her gift. The gift of empathy. Look into another’s eyes and feel the same emotions with the same intensity as the one whose eyes met hers. She had received the gift as a child, bestowed on her as future leader of her tribe. This gift was supposed to help her in leading and caring for her people. But it was slowly dissolving her soul. She was so, so weary.
Jade went back to her pallet and lay down, breathing deep. She closed her eyes. If only sleep could give her the relief she longed for…
“I can give you the relief you seek.”
The low voice jolted through her mind and she jerked up, eyes immediately drawn to the dark-robed figure across from her, by the tent entrance. Heart hammering, Jade inhaled deeply, body tense for movement.
“I did not come to do you harm, but to offer you what you seek.” The voice was strong but soft.
“What? Who- who are you?” Jade rose to her feet. “Where have you come from?”
“I am a Carrier. I travel across the earth transporting things of value. And I have come to offer you a gift of great worth in exchange for the same.”
Jade stared, unraveling the words. “You came to offer me a gift?”
“You ask for relief, I can give you relief. It is quite simple. I can take you away from this desert of misery, and bring you into a real palace, where you will be able to truly fulfill your role as Princess.”
“But – I am Princess Jade of Cainan. This is my desert, and these are my people.”
“A princess can lead any people. Your heart is pure and you wish to do well by your people, but in this place you do not have the ability to help them. Your tribe has no wealth, no army to guard against foreign invaders, no real power.” The clothed figure spoke matter-of-factly.
Jade stiffened. “We may not be a rich people, but we are a strong people, living for generations in this desert. I am their Princess, and I have the respect of my people.”
“And so you do. But the people’s respect does not improve their plight. You could truly live up to the title you carry, rather than spending your days on your knees in the desert.”
“My people need me.” Jade said, beginning to feel desperate. “Every day a line stretches from outside my tent to the tribe’s tents, full of those waiting to speak to me. I listen to each one. I have always-“
“You listen, yes. But you have no power to change their lives. You have no power to ease their suffering. But I can ease yours. You do not have to feel other’s pain anymore. You do not have to waste your life in agony, knowing their needs but being unable to meet them. You can leave this place and your curse will be gone as well.”
“Feeling. Absorbing their emotions, their needs, worries, fears, anger. All you will know is your own mind.”
My own mind. What did that even mean? She had known other’s minds so long that she was unsure what would be left of her own.
“But, it isn’t a curse, it’s a gift.” Jade began, losing some of her self-assuredness with each word. “I have always been told I was given a great gift, granted at birth to help me lead. A way to help my people…”
“Help them? And how are you helping them? You listen, you feel, you know, but that is all. You cannot take away their distress. You cannot lift their burdens. You hold all the burdens of your people, but there is no one to share yours.”
Tears blurred her vision at the words reflecting her soul. The Carrier, whoever they were, understood. Saw her. No one else really saw her, they saw only someone to share in their burdens. The words were true; she did not ease her people’s burdens by listening to them. She could not cure a disease, eradicate injustice, wipe the memory of loss. She was merely a cup, holding parts of their pain until her own overflowed. But there was no one to capture her own pain.
“How… just like that? It will be gone?”
“Yes, just like that. You leave this place, you surrender this ‘gift’, as you say, and it is done.”
“You said… in exchange for something of value. What do my people have of value to you … why is my gift valuable?”
“You underestimate the force of the empathy you possess. As I said, I am a Carrier. I deal in things of great worth. This gift is quite valuable to those who do not possess it. It is only causing you pain. You wish to escape, you wish for relief, it is yours. Your inner world is now muddied by the feelings of others. You can lead without this burden. You can lead in another place with a clear mind. Do you not want a clear mind with which to consider others, to see them without the intrusion of emotions to overwhelm your reasoning?”
“But these are my people.” The words were a whisper, her mind consumed with the impact of what the Carrier was suggesting.
“And what good are you doing them as they watch you slowly drown? They continue to come, you continue to take in their needs but they give nothing to you in return. You gain nothing by staying. You want to make change. But you cannot do so here.”
Jade breathed in deeply. “So if I left… then what? You said the cur- gift would be gone. And what of my people, they are left alone with no leader?”
“Yes, the curse would be gone. It is what is required in exchange. Your people will not be left alone. As I said, I am a Carrier. Something of value will also be given. They will be no worse off than they are now. They will continue to live their lives as they have been. Another can listen on their knees in the desert, can they not?”
Jade stood still, the truth of the words pressing on her. Someone else could listen to them. Someone else could take her place, because . . . She had nothing more to give.
“I will come back tomorrow evening to hear your decision. You must consider carefully. Not every Princess is given this chance, to rid themselves of such a burden and escape the existence they were born into.”
“You… are returning?”
“Tomorrow evening, as I said. Consider carefully.”
Jade glanced down at the blanket on which she slept then back up to the tent opening. The tent was flapping, the figure gone. Jade quickly walked to the edge of the tent, even though she knew the Carrier would be gone. She searched the horizon and saw nothing but the night. She walked slowly back to her pallet.
A gift. A curse. Something of value.
She could not leave, of course. These were her people, she was their Princess, and she would continue to serve. Her mind went back to the old woman, Giselle. Giselle came to her today, for what purpose? Jade could not bring back the mind of Giselle’s husband. She could not restore lost memories. She could not erase an old woman’s sadness. What good was a Princess who could offer nothing to her people? What good was this gift if it only tormented her?
Jade lay down on her back.
What would it be like to be free of this gift- this curse? To look into another’s eyes and not know, not feel. Her shoulders relaxed. No constant pain. A clear mind, only her own emotions for company. Could she not better serve if she were not blinded by the suffocating emotions of those around her? Jade closed her eyes, mind swirling with new possibilities.
Soft breath tickled her face. Jade blinked her eyes open to see a rosy face and large, brown eyes surrounded by a curtain of dark hair. The small girl looked expectantly at Jade and a smile lit her face.
“Laiana?” Jade blinked in the morning light which had moved well past dawn.
“I am sorry, I told her to wait, that you were sleeping.” Naya stepped swiftly into the room and reached for the small girl, but Jade held up her hand.
“No, it is alright Naya. She can stay.”
Laiana grinned wider. Naya nodded and left.
“It is morning, Princess Jade.”
“So I see. You are here early.” Jade pushed herself up to sitting.
Laiana nodded solemnly. “Yes, I wanted to be the first one to share my heart with you today.”
Jade stilled. “Share your heart?”
“Yes! My heart is happy today, and I want you to be happy too.” Laiana gazed expectantly at Jade.
“I am glad your heart is happy, Laiana.”
“Are you happy now, too, Princess?”
“I-“ Jade stared into the girls beautiful eyes, her soul feeling the innocent joy. “Now I am, my dear. Is this the only reason you came? To share your happiness?”
Laiana looked thoughtful and glanced away. Jade felt the pureness of the joy ebbing away, slowly replaced by the uncertainty of the previous night.
“I also came because you make me feel warm inside.” Laiana looked back to Jade.
“Of course! You know my heart.” The words came with such sincerity that Jade had no response. Laiana continued earnestly. “You know how much my heart hurts because I miss Mama and Papa. And you know when I am happy because my heart is full of love.”
Jade thought of the parents Laiana had lost the year previous. Laiana had spoken to Jade about her parents before, and at the time Jade thought she would burst from holding the fragile pain of such a young orphan. The child was remarkably resilient and Jade glimpsed a pure light whenever she was near.
Jade moved to her knees and reached for Laiana’s hand, the two face to face. The girl waited, watching Jade patiently.
“Laiana, why does it help to tell me how you are feeling? I can’t make you happy or sad. I only listen.”
“You listen to my heart.” Laiana said emphatically. “No one else knows what is in my heart, but you do, so my heart is not so lonely. Our hearts are happy and sad together.”
Emotion, this time her own, rose in Jade’s soul and overflowed to her eyes.
“We know each other’s hearts.”
The words settled in her mind. Our hearts are happy and sad together.
The revelation was sudden and truth filled her mind. Her people were not alone in their pain. Jade may not be able to take it away, but she could be in the pain with them, in a way no one else could. This was where the value of her gift lay. She understood them, saw them, felt them. And their hearts needed each other.
This innocent child, who had nothing in the world to offer but her heart, gave of it freely. If one so young who had lost so much could be brave, how could Jade run away?
Resolve rising, she stood and grabbed Laiana’s hand. “Come, my child. We must go visit an old woman who needs someone like you to bring her light, and someone like me to share in her darkness.” Laiana smiled up at her, the two walking out into the hot desert sun.