The Desert Princess: A Fable About Formless Love. {fiction}


I told this story to a friend the other night. The air was cold and dry, and carried the sound of thousands of birds settling into the olive trees outside for the night.

We lay back against woven cushions on low couches, bellies full, and the peacefulness of the Moroccan mountains hugging our thoughts.

As so many stories do, it began with a princess and ended with something much more profound.


This is a true story. My neighbor assures me it is so. Maybe it happened last year, maybe last century — I don’t know, but it happened, there’s no doubt.

Once there was a desert princess who lived not far from here. She was free-spirited and strong-willed, and she liked to ride out alone on her horse for hours — even days — at a time.

The poets wrote that she carried the moon in her hips, the sun in her eyes, and a fire in her feet.

This princess had five older sisters. One by one, her parents (the king and queen) married them to princes and noblemen of neighboring kingdoms.

At last, it was the princess’ turn. The sun in her eyes dimmed, and she set her face in determination as she announced that she would not marry.

The king and queen insisted.

She refused.

They insisted.

She refused.

Her rides out into the desert became longer and longer. She returned always more stubborn, hair more wild, feet burning hotter. Until… one day, she returned with a different light in her eyes.

She sought out her parents and told them: “Okay, I will marry… I will marry the man who can bring me the sky in a dress, the moon in a necklace, and fire in a pair of shoes.”

The princess’ requests were recorded faithfully, and messengers carried the news to the four directions. North, South, East, West — word of the princess’ challenge (and of her coal-fire feet and sun-fire eyes) spread.

Quickly, suitors began to arrive in the kingdom. They traveled in long caravans, camels laden with gifts of incense and spices, shot silk and precious jewels. One by one, they revealed their offerings to the princess: robes of shimmering gold, necklaces of glittering gems, shoes of shining obsidian.

Marvelous things. Things almost too beautiful to be real. But real they were, and of course no real thing could contain the sky, the moon, or fire. The princess pursed her lips and shook her head at each new gift.

They had not understood.

One day, a mysterious traveler arrived — alone, on foot, carrying the dust of the desert road on his skin and hair.

He carried a single wooden box, intricately carved, and inlaid with metals and jewels. The box was no bigger than my forearm, and no wider than my hand.

Immediately the court began to hum with speculation about what could be inside. Surely no dress, no shoes, no brilliant necklace could fit in so small a box?

The man stayed in the kingdom for a long time — maybe it was days; maybe it was years. He delighted everyone, especially the princess, with his traveler’s tales, but despite many, many curious pleas, he would not open his box.

Not yet, not yet, he always said, Not yet.

Finally, finally, one evening when everyone had had a bit to drink, the pleas reached a crescendo, and the man relented.

He rose from the table.

And he went to his room to retrieve the box.

And he returned.

Silence fell as everyone in the room held their breath and craned their necks to see.

And then, he opened it.

And… the box… was empty.

Before the outcry could begin, the traveler began to tell a story. It was a fantastical story of enchanted forests and foolhardy quests. Of dragons and long, long roads. The fairies, he said, after many trials and tests, had given him the three items the princess had demanded.

Here, in this box, he said, You will find the sky in a dress, the moon in a necklace, and fire in a pair of shoes. Only, you cannot see them, for I have taken them beyond the bounds of the enchanted forest.

This world is full of magic, he said, speaking only to the princess, Let me show it to you.

Was the man’s story true? We ask.

Does it matter?

You see, the man, with his empty box, had offered something none of the other suitors could. He had offered space. Possibility. Wonder. Adventure. Inside that empty box was something more valuable than any solid object; inside that box (and inside the man who carried it) were stories — and these, only these, could win the princess’ heart.

She had asked for the world. Only he had understood that such a gift is formless. No silk or jewels can capture it, and the most precious things are invisible to the eyes.

And so they lived happily… or that is what I’ve heard anyway.


Toby IsraelToby Israel is an incorrigible vagabond. She travels in search of dragons, mermaids, adventures and searches… and cross-cultural understanding. Avid dancer, yogi, cook and lover of words, she is inspired by movement and poetry, good food and new things. She studied Anthropology at Middlebury College, and now works as an editor at elephant journal. She also continues to find her way in the world as a 21st century nomad, and you can share her journey at Next Stop World, TwitterFacebook and Instagram.


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