Once upon a time there was a village that was just like every other village, but not in every way. Like everywhere else, there were wonderful people and also people who weren’t always wonderful. Like everywhere else, there were hard-working people and not-so-hard-working people. Like everywhere else there were school days and holidays and everyone wished there were fewer of the one and more of the other.
But unlike everywhere else, this little village had a great big king, king over all the other villages and towns and even cities, who came and walked in its streets. He wasn’t a usual sort of king, fancy and important on his faraway throne. No, this king knew his people. He could tell when Agata had let her bread rise longer than usual and when Polly’s tooth was hurting. He brought Frankie scraps to feed to his dog and always seemed to have a new color of paint for Angelo to try. Hardly a day went by that he couldn’t be seen playing dice with Matt or reading with Catherine.
And of course, the villagers loved their king—when they weren’t too busy for him, that is. Because even a king can become commonplace if he’s always around. So while most of the children could be seen running to him every time he strolled down the lane, many of the adults kept about their business, glancing up when he greeted them and murmuring a few words in appreciation of the gifts he’d brought them and their children. Most of them, it seems, took their king for granted.
But not all the time. Every year, as the ground began to freeze and the skies seemed to be gray more often than they were blue, the villagers’ thoughts would turn to their king. His birthday fell in the deep of winter and it was the custom in that place for each of the villagers to take him a gift, given straight into his own hands at the feast that celebrated his birth. It was a very solemn occasion, a time for best clothes and best manners with best gifts on display.
And there amid all the good and better and best was Cora. Cora lived in a small house at the edge of town, one of those homes that never had quite enough wood for the fire or potatoes for the pot. There was more yelling than was quite pleasant and it wouldn’t be fair to blame it all on the adults who lived there. Certainly they would have done well to speak more sweetly, but little Cora did quite a lot of yelling herself. Often she could be seen with her face, smudged with day-old dirt, screwed up in a scowl, walking down the lane kicking at stones and small children. Cora had a temper, and even her gentle king had felt her wrath when he’d crossed her path at the wrong time.
But Cora wasn’t all bad. And as the air turned chill and the first flakes began to fall from the heavy sky, Cora’s mind turned to the king’s birthday just like everyone else’s. The trouble was, she had nothing to give.
“Why don’t you write him a song?” asked little David, trying out a few notes on the flute the king had given him that spring.
“I don’t know how,” muttered Cora, wishing she could sing like David.
“I’m making him a painting,” Angelo said. “Why don’t you do something with the colored pencils he gave you?”
“I broke them when I couldn’t get my pictures to look right.”
When Cora walked past the well, Teresa was practicing her pirouettes. “I do think the king is going to love my dance. Probably best of all his gifts. Are you going to dance for him?”
But Cora had worn her dancing shoes to jump in mud puddles and they were quite ruined.
John was going to juggle, but whenever Cora tried she ended up throwing his balls into a ditch in frustration. Tom was writing a list of his favorite things about the king but Cora was sure her writing was too ugly. Clara was hard at work embroidering for the king but Cora’s just turned into a knotted mess.
“Just tell him how much you love him,” Cora’s grandmother suggested.
“That won’t be enough! I have nothing I can give him. Nothing at all! And everyone else will do something lovely and I’ll just stand there looking stupid. I hate this.”
As the days got shorter, the villagers spent more and more time perfecting their gifts. Bread was baked, wood whittled, and heads held high as projects turned out just as planned, until finally the day arrived. Children’s faces were scrubbed to shining before they were marched in their Sunday best to the palace. And when everyone was gathered, the ceremony began. One by one, the villagers walked forward to present their gifts to the king. Seated on his throne with his mother beside him, the king smiled with real pleasure as he saw the handiwork of his friends.
The village children stood tall and proud as they waited their turn—all but Cora, who shrank down in the crowd, hoping to be passed over. Finally, the king’s steward called out, “Are there any more gifts to be offered?” Silence, as Cora crossed all of her fingers and stared at the ground. Then:
“Cora. Dear heart, I don’t think you’ve had a chance yet.” It was the king’s mother, looking down at her with gentle, hopeful eyes. Cora couldn’t hide any more, so she dragged herself up to the front and pulled out a worn cardboard box.
“Here,” she muttered, and put it in the king’s hands before turning to walk away as quickly as she could.
“Well, wait a moment!” he laughed. “I want to see what’s inside.”
A sick feeling crept into Cora’s stomach as she turned to wait for what would surely be the worst moment of her life. The queen mother’s sudden gasp was all Cora needed to start her tears rolling, and the murmurs and snickers of the crowd only made it worse.
“Muddy dancing slippers? Whyever would he want those?”
“What is that charred mess? Is it a half-burned book?”
“Oh, dear, the stupid thing has given him an old dead flower. What was she thinking?”
Cora stood there alone, feeling as ugly and foolish as ever a child has felt, until she heard her king silence his people.
“Hush,” he said, as soft as it was stern. “Cora, love, come here.”
Slowly, sullenly, Cora stepped from the disdainful crowd, ready to be ridiculed by the king, too.
“Look at me, dearest.” Pulling her eyes away from their safe spot on her feet, she looked at her king and saw no anger in his eyes, not even amusement. There were tears there, though Cora couldn’t think why. “What is all this?”
“It’s everything. It’s the pieces of the bowl I broke and the book I threw in the fire when I couldn’t read all the words. I knew you wanted me to learn to dance but I couldn’t dance for you because I ruined my shoes playing in the mud, so I put those in, too. I would have given you back the ring you gave me but I traded it to Colette so she’d do my chores for me for a week.”
“And the rose?”
“I stole it.” Cora’s voice was so soft only the king and his mother could hear. “I stole it from your garden and I wanted to give it back.”
“Oh, Cora. Cora, it’s beautiful.”
“What? The rose?” Cora felt sure she must have heard wrong.
“All of it. It’s the most beautiful gift of them all. You see, everyone else gave me something lovely, and I was very pleased by the cakes and books and poems and such. But you gave me your heart. You had nothing to give and so you gave me your nothingness. I love it.”
Cora’s heart thrilled to hear the king’s words, but she couldn’t understand them. How could he like her gift of ugly brokenness? No, he was just being kind. Cora managed half a smile before disappearing back into the crowd. She pushed past her curious neighbors, all asking what the king had said and why she hadn’t found something better, until she found a door that led her outside. Cora pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders, sat against the wall, and wondered. “You gave me your heart,” he had said. What did he mean?
She was still thinking some time later, her teeth chattering and her fingers blue with cold, when she heard a familiar voice call her name. Looking up, she saw the king and wondered how he’d managed to sneak away from the crowds.
“Cora, come with me. I have something to show you.” He took her hand and led her through a gate she hadn’t noticed, down passageway after passageway, until they found themselves in a long hall.
“Look,” the king said, and led her to the far wall.
There, Cora saw her village, not as it was but as it should be, without ruts in the lanes or broken fence posts. The flowers were in bloom, the creek glistening, and the faces radiant. As Cora approached, she saw that the image was made of a thousand little things—scraps of fabric, bits of paper, stones, even—
“My bowl!” Cora cried. “Those pieces in the creek—the shiny blue bits. Those are from my broken bowl!”
“They are,” the king agreed.
“And there, that book lying open on the bench. That has pages from my burnt book!”
“I make ugly things new. I make broken things beautiful. Everything you offer me, even the ugly and broken—especially the ugly and broken—can become something beautiful.”
“But everyone laughed. They said it was stupid!”
“They don’t know, Cora. They don’t know that my power is made perfect in weakness. They don’t understand that the most beautiful thing they can offer me is their hearts, even when it seems there’s nothing there to give.”
“But you haven’t used it all, have you? Where’s my rose?”
“I haven’t used that yet. Maybe one day I’ll show you where I put it. But you don’t need to know how I use it, do you? Isn’t it enough to know that I will?”
“I guess so. And my muddy shoes?”
“Ah, those are in the palace treasury.”
Cora’s heart sank again. She knew not everything could be made right. “The palace trash heap? I guess that’s only fair.”
“No, dearest, not the trash heap. The treasury! Those I will not use. I want to keep them. They are very dear to me because I know how much it cost you to give them. You will have new dancing shoes again—some day—but those shoes will stay here. And every time I see them I will be grateful once again that you gave them to me.”
“Even though they’re dirty and ugly?”
“Because they’re dirty and ugly. I am, you know, in the business of making things new.”
After that day, Cora’s life was different. Except when it wasn’t. Some years she had a lovely gift to offer the king. Other years she brought a box of brokenness. And either way, the king smiled. Because, as it turned out, he didn’t want Cora’s gift. He wanted her heart. And Cora was glad to give it to him.