Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Once upon a time, in a small little village, there lived a girl who could make stars. This girl, whose name was Jane, was rather plain and slight. But she had two beauties. One of them was her long hair, as thick as the finest brocade and as dark as the night sky. The other was her ability to erase people’s sadness. Each day whenever Jane could take away the woes of the villagers, stars would appear from the Heavens in the sky at night, one star for every worry that was eradicated. But if she failed that day the stars would fall like rain down from the sky and the villagers would remain unhappy. Kind Jane knew that such a gift could not be wasted, and so, this young girl put the burden of an entire village on her shoulders. The Burden was always there. It accompanied her to the Farmer’s Market for groceries, it dropped her off at school, and it continued to whisper to her a single sentence that rendered Jane a prisoner of her own mind: “It is only you who can make people happy.”
And so she made it her purpose in life to take away people’s sadness. Every day when the sun rose it blanketed the world in its warm glow like honey dripping down the curve of a swaying leaf. Wooden houses creaked and songbirds sang as Jane woke up from a long night’s rest. She often slept deeply because her duties always left her incredibly drained. Jane combed her long hair, washed her face, greeted her family hello, ate breakfast, and then set off to fix the world.
She skipped to her neighbor’s house, Old Man Fig’s. His real name was Mr. Finley, but he was nicknamed Old Man Fig because all he did every day was care for his fig trees in his garden. She knocked on his front door and he opened it, and they greeted each other hello. Jane asked the Old Man what his worries were.
Old Man Fig sighed wearily and told her he was far too tired and old to care for his trees alone today. The summer was scorching hot and the Old Man was wiping a waterfall of sweat from his brows. So Jane smiled and said:
“I can help!”
And so she helped him water his trees. She also carried pails of water from his home to the garden, which she used to dip a small cloth into and pat the Old Man’s sweat away.
The Old Man looked at his trees sadly, its yellowing leaves limp and frail.
“It’s very hot now. I’m worried a drought will set in and that my trees will die.”
“Don’t worry!” Jane said. “I will help you care for your trees every day and they won’t die.” She was confident that as long as she tried her hardest, nothing, not even Mother Nature’s whims, could prevent her from accomplishing her tasks.
Old Man Fig smiled and thanked her, and when the two finished caring for the fig trees, Jane bid him farewell and skipped to the house beside his.
It was her classmate Caroline’s house. Jane knocked on the door and Caroline’s mother opened it. They greeted each other hello, and Jane asked Caroline’s mother what her worries were. Her shoulders drooped and she shook her head sadly.
“Caroline is very sad today. I tried to cheer her up, but I failed.”
Jane smiled and told her: “I can help!”
And so she helped Caroline. Jane sat beside her and encouraged her to confide in her.
“I am very lonely.” Caroline lamented quietly. “I am not pretty, and I am not clever, and no one in our class likes me.”
“That’s not true!” Jane told Caroline. “You are pretty, and clever, and I like you very much. This means we are friends, so don’t be lonely.”
Caroline smiled and thanked her. And so the two friends spoke together and played games together until Caroline was laughing happily. Jane then bid her farewell and bid her mother farewell too.
“Thank you, Jane.” Her mother said before Jane could go. “Thank you for taking away our worries.”
Jane smiled and told her she was welcome. The Burden on her shoulders nodded approvingly with every word of thanks and every grateful smile. It was the only thing that could satiate it, and soon became the only thing that could make Jane happy. But each day, the Burden’s expectations of her grew monstrously until it became a beast, one that would only let her rest if she failed no one.
Jane spent her entire day like this, and soon the sun was beginning to set. Young Jane then walked to a cliffside at the edge of the village and sat, waiting for the night sky. The world darkened and the breeze grew colder. Then, one, two, three, small diamond lights appeared in the night sky one after the other. Jane looked up at the night sky and counted all the stars with great joy.
I’ve done well today, she thought. She and the Burden sat alongside one another and admired the reward for their strenuous work, but a nagging warning plagued Jane’s mind and provoked the beast. She tried to ignore the few stars that were falling down from the Heavens, but she could not. It was the Heavens reminding her of her incompetence. Jane could not make everyone happy that day. Disheartened but not defeated, she clenched her fists and told herself she would do better tomorrow. Jane was not one to give up so quickly. Rejuvinated, she got up and walked all the way home. She was exhausted from the events of her day and so she fell asleep the moment her head met the pillow.
Then the next morning came and brought with it a new day to eliminate the sorrows of the world.
As Jane skipped to Old Man Fig’s house, she noticed that it was considerably hotter that day than it was yesterday. Her forehead was pin-pricked with sweat. Heart racing, a myriad of terrible thoughts went through her mind. But to her relief, the Old Man’s trees were still alive. After she helped him tend for his trees she moved on to little Caroline’s house, whom she found weeping in her bedroom. Again, Jane tried to cheer her up, but today all she could manage was a small smile. The Burden watched Jane like a hawk as she left Caroline’s home. Though it had no face and no mouth Jane could see the discontent and hear the “that wasn’t good enough” that she had grown accustomed to seeing and hearing.
Standing outside Caroline’s house, she took a breath and tried to regain some semblance of optimism. How could she make people happy if she was gloomy all the time? Jane forced out a cheerful laugh to reset her mood but the sound fell painfully flat. She sighed. I even fail at smiling, she told herself. It was supposed to be a lighthearted joke but it only made her feel worse. She swallowed her feelings down and moved on to the next house. She was already drained and it was only her second house, so instead of skipping, young Jane made do with a slow walk.
She helped people with housework and homework, made chicken soup for the ailing, and tried to reconcile arguments. When Jane made her way to the cliffside that day, she was extremely fatigued but had managed to lift her own spirits up. It wasn’t a perfect day, but she had tried her best. There will be lots of stars today, she encouraged herself. And yet as she waited for the sky to darken and the breeze to chill, one, two, three stars began to appear from the Heavens and then slip down the sky, racing one another like jockeys on their stallions, down to the end of the world. So many more falling stars than there were yesterday. Jane looked up at the sky, pale. How could she have failed so miserably after all her hard work?
The Burden, too, watched the sky. It was disgusted. It didn’t have to say anything, because Jane already knew. Failure. Her soul plunged down with every star that fell, following it to the great abyss below. But she couldn’t give up; so many people depended on her. The Burden opened its mouth and Jane spoke in its voice: You are the only one who can make people happy. Mustering the last of her strength, she clenched her fists once more, a little weaker than the day before, and swore she would do better the next day.
With this vow Jane went home and slept a deep sleep. Every single day, she worked to ensure that the sky would be filled with stars and the village filled with happiness. But every day there was at least one star that fell, there was always one problem she couldn’t fix. Day by day she grew paler, unhappier, and more tired. Her hair was no longer the color of the night sky. The rich hue had faded to a lifeless ebony, and the cheerful Jane had merely become the human mask of a parasitic beast.
On one especially blistering day, so scorching that even the flowers sought shelter from the sun, Jane made her way to Old Man Fig’s house. She knocked on the door but he didn’t come out. Worried, she walked to the back of his house and found him crouched down in front of his withered trees. She climbed the fence in a hurry and ran to him, panting at the effort.
“What happened to the trees?” she asked him, stricken.
The Old Man looked up at her tearfully. His shoulders trembled and he began to weep.
“They are all dead. They are all dead! They have shriveled up from the heat and died!” He wailed.
Jane stared at the wilted remains of Old Man Fig’s fig trees. Panic was a deceptive feeling. The world was at once spinning uncontrollably and yet frozen still. The ugly truth of her broken promise was so loud that she could barely keep herself from falling down. The Burden continued its banshee’s screech as she shakily knelt down by the Old Man. She told him she would help him plant new trees, but the Old Man shook his head in tears.
“When my wife died, all I had left were my fig trees and now they are dead too. I have nothing now, I have nothing in my life.” He cried. Jane blinked at his confession and slumped her shoulders down. All was silent but the despair of the lonely Old Man and the shrieking of Jane’s conscience. Reality had slapped her in the face with unforgiving force, but she couldn’t accept it. If she accepted it she would never be able to face the world. No. She couldn’t accept it.
Jane got up quietly and told the Old Man she would come back tomorrow and help him replant his fig trees. He didn’t reply. She left him and walked to Caroline’s house, numb.
Jane entered Caroline’s room and found her lying down on her bed. Her heart thumped in fear.
“Caroline? Are you alright?”
But Caroline said nothing. Jane sat beside her on the bed and waited for Caroline to speak, but she never did.
“Do you want to play hide and seek?” Jane asked her, smiling weakly.
At this, Caroline’s face crumpled, and she began to cry.
“Caroline! What’s wrong?”
“Nobody likes me, and nobody will play games with me because I am ugly and because I am not clever.”
“I will play games with you! You are my friend!”
But try as she might, Jane could not take Caroline’s sadness away. So numb she didn’t even know what to say, she once again got up and retreated. As she left Caroline’s room, she walked past her classmate’s mother, who looked down in anguish. Jane looked at her and a slow horror crept in. The Burden shook its head at her as though she were a fool. How could you forget? It hissed. Indeed, how could she forget? A person’s sadness was shared by all who loved them. When Jane failed a single person, in reality she was failing tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people. With these haunting thoughts in mind, Jane left Caroline’s home.
She limped her way from house to house. The housework never ended, people failed their exams, the ailing did not recover, and the arguments couldn’t be resolved.
That night, the wind, barely cold, blew past her tangled hair. The night sky looked down on a girl sitting by the cliffside. The girl was sobbing hard, hands covering her face as her body shook with every aching cry. The sky was crying as well, but it was stars that fell down its cheeks. Stars, in the hundreds, plunged down, down, down to a place below the world, far, far away from the village, and far, far away from Jane.
The next day, Jane could not bring herself to leave her home, and instead she remained in bed, much to the worry of her family. She did not watch the sky anymore, too distressed at what she would see.
A week later, Jane was running errands for her family, and was buying fruits from the Farmer’s Market. The last item on the list was figs. Jane felt hollow. She looked around but Mr. Finley’s stall was nowhere to be found. The Burden, already having strangled her beyond measure, clasped her heart in its hands and squeezed without mercy. She turned around robotically and began to walk home when she bumped into a tall figure. Her basket of fruit nearly tumbled down and she barely grabbed hold of it before it fell.
“I’m sorry,” both said, and Jane looked up to see it was Mr. Finley. Her eyes widened with shock.
“Mr. Finley?” she said. Held captive by her shame, she found it difficult to look the Old Man in the eye. But her surprise only grew when he gave her a warm smile.
“Hello, Jane. How are you?”
Jane blinked at him. She was expecting him to be furious, or cold, at the very least. She had broken her promise, after all. She was a failure. She had fully accepted reality’s bitter words: that she was useless.
“I… am well. And you?” she asked cautiously. “Are you going to your stall?”
The Old Man shook his head slowly. “I am going to the cemetery. I want to see my wife.”
Jane looked down at the ground, shuffling her feet, her shame deepening. “I see.”
The Old Man looked at the young child kindly. “Thank you for all your help, Jane.”
She glanced at him and saw not a trace of blame in his eyes. Jane was so shocked by his gratitude that her eyes watered. She gave him a sad smile. “You are welcome.”
When Jane went home that day, the Burden was considerably quieter than it had been in a long time. The heaviness in her chest had not disappeared but it wasn’t as suffocating today. Jane recalled the Old Man’s words over and over again. She wondered if Caroline too, and every other villager she had failed to help had also forgiven her. And then, a wonderful thought briefly entered her mind. Little Jane dared to hope that all of those people were never angry at her in the first place. The thought made Jane smile, and she swallowed the lump in her throat.
At night, Jane lay her head on her pillow. Before she fell asleep, she found she could not avoid the sky anymore, so she shifted her body and looked out her window. It was a small window, so the view was not nearly as wonderful as the cliffside, but Jane still wanted to see it. With great pain, she watched star after star fall from the sky. But then, before she could turn away, a lone star in the distance captured her attention. She had never noticed that one before, but it sparkled brilliantly back at her watchful eyes. With its image in her mind, her chest lightened, she fell into a peaceful sleep.