Outside a village in pastoral Spain, the name of which I cannot quite recall, there lived not long ago a most beautiful shepherdess who spent her days in the solitude of the countryside and some nights’ rest on mossy beds by the moonlit river, in nature, her home away from home. Now, this young woman was not always a shepherdess, in fact, she was once an heiress to a fortune left behind by her father, the richest farmer of all the villages for many miles around. But the orphan, who was raised by yet another man, her caring and pious uncle, chose to dress up as a shepherdess…[and give] herself over to this free and easy life. Marcela roamed the mountains in the innocent company of the village shepherdesses for she had become disenchanted with the men that surrounded her, from villages all around, who could never see past her beauty. As a child, on the rare instance that she would be allowed outside, boys would tease her by tugging on her skirt and bleating baseless insults at her. But with a flick of her honey eyes and a biting retort these jeers seemed to roll off her olive skinned back.
Soon enough, her blouses were filled no longer by raisins but plump pomegranates and as the boys turned to men, their discussions shifted from her rosy apple cheeks to her lovely pear shape, their eyes hungering for her beauty. Cooked around her was an idea that she filled peaches with love potions of venom crafted in the mountains she roamed. She was said to have been seen speaking to a viper somewhere in the dark woods. It was said that the serpent whispered to her to pluck a fresh young peach from the tree and inject into it the elixir made from the forked tongued creature’s venom. The snake, so it was said, made clear to the shepherdess that she must thrust into the fruit from where the stem was removed for no man would ever accept a peach with scars on its soft youthful skin. A number of elders in the village, some of whom had been married for over 30 years, as well as the young children, who likened the shepherdess to a fairytale princess when she waved and smiled to them, would sensibly interject that there are no peaches anywhere near the village and that the exotic fruit is quite expensive and hard to come by. But to this the impassioned and eager village men had a most logical response: “That’s what I heard, I swear it.” How is anyone to argue that?
And so, Marcela chose the solitude of the countryside. She had the trees on these mountains as her company, the clear waters of these streams as her mirrors; and to the trees and the waters she revealed her thoughts, the true fruits of her seclusion, and the remains of her beauty. The trees did not follow her around begging for approval; they stood steadfast and listened to her words, respiring her thoughts, bearing for her as much inspiration as her beauty inspired in others. The rivers did not merely reflect back to her the beauty she knew she had, they naturally distorted her visage, reminding her wisely that beauty, like some rivers, are ephemeral. Nature was nothing like her many suitors, the many rich youths, hidalgos and farmers who dressed up as shepherds and wandered about the fields wooing her. Nature never asked anything of her, nor pressured her, nor slandered her. Nature spoke truly to her, with its well-matched beauty and mutual love. Nature’s beauty inspired her love and captivated her heart, its mountains marking the limits of her desires. In nature, at times with the village shepherdesses, other times in solitude, and other times still while caring for her goats, she was happy.
Meandering along a wood path, with rays of sun peeking through the leaves from the heavens and some of her goats ahead of her, Marcela stopped at the foot of a tall beech tree. She called her small flock to come rest while she began to climb the sturdy tree trunk when, to her dismay, she came eye to eye with a tattoo of her name. Engraved right into its bark were the words Marcela, My Queen. There were more words after that but she couldn’t be bothered with the graffitied nonsense so she decided it was a sign to not rest but keep on walking. She was on a bit of a mission today anyway. One of her goats was ill and she knew of a spot, deep in the thick of a nearby forest, that had the exact type of berries she needed to cure him and so she brought some of the flock to come along on her walk. Why not make a day of it? As she walked along, she was deep in thought, bothered, in reality, by the markings she had seen. She wasn’t quite sure what was more bothersome: the marring of the innocent tree or yet another reminder of these men’s inconsideration.
“How can they say they love me, when they don’t know me?” she said to the trees, to the goats, to the skies, “Why do they feel that I would enjoy the desecration of my home? Why would they force upon me the title of queen when I know myself to be a shepherdess?”
A goat bleated in seeming response and, as if on cue, the wind rustled the trees. Lost in her proclamations and in the pastoral sounds, she didn’t notice that, some distance behind her, there were two men and their steeds, eyeing her with question.
“She’s mad, that one is.” said the gangly man straddling his equally gangly horse.
“What makes you say that?” said the portly man atop a donkey with a belly only slightly larger than its master’s.
“See how she flails her arms about? Do you hear her voice blown to us by the wind? Who is she talking to? Madness, I tell you. Madness!” The man said wildly, frightening his horse and causing the visor on his helmet to shield his eyes.
Marcela heard a commotion and turned to see the strangest sight: A galloping horse pulled behind it a flailing and clattering man whose clothes, or more like coverings (as they didn’t seem to be made of fabric) were flying out in chunks. Being the caring shepherdess that she was, she quickly herded her flock to safety and soothingly clicked her tongue at the horse to stop. Once the dust settled, she walked up to the injured man, tangled in his stirrups, and was quite confused by the sight of him. He held a leather shield and tied to his head by green ribbons was a helmet made of cardboard, explaining to her the flying pieces she saw, as what was left of his pants were made of the same material.
With a groan, the man stood, and blinded by his visor, yelled all around, “I saw your madness woman; speaking to spirits! I will cure you from this hysteria with my sword!”
The woman tapped him on his shoulder, causing him to spin around, and when she lifted up his blindening visor the man was taken aback by her beauty and swiftly changed his tone:
“Fairest maiden, I am Don Quixote de la Mancha. I apologize for my outburst as this is no way for a valiant knight such as myself to treat a kind maiden such as yours. I thank you for your aide in subduing my noble steed, Jocinante, no, pardon, Rocinante.”
Quite surprised by his change in tone as well as his appearance, Marcela eyed him with suspicion. He didn’t seem like any knight she had ever read of. He had no control over his steed and couldn’t even remember its name for heaven’s sake. He wasn’t stately so much as he was in a state. He was disheveled and his attire was more than odd. But she was all too familiar with being treated differently because of one’s appearance and thought that surely this man had a reason for dressing like a knight just as she had hers for becoming a shepherdess. The difference, she believed, lied not in what he called himself but in whether he indeed acted like the knight he claimed to be. Did he act with honour? Did he serve his duties? These, she well knew, were not things she could answer by appearance alone.
As she opened her mouth to respond in introduction, she was interrupted by the yells of the portly person on a donkey.
“Don Qui!” The fellow bellowed. “You alright? I tried to catch up but my ass is big and tired. This fat donkey doesn’t move fast.”
The paunchy man dismounted his steed, upon realizing that he was in the presence of an unknown lady he said with a sheepish wave, “Oh. Hello. I’m Sancho Panza. I guess you’ve met Don Quixote. This one here is my ass. I’m his squire. Don Qui’s squire not my donkey’s squire, I mean.”
At the end of this fumbling introduction, the poor portly donkey collapsed in a heap by his master. With all the same concern she gave her flock, Marcela rushed to its side while Sancho yelped in powerless surprise. Don Quixote tried to help with lines from the veterinary teachings of Hippiatrica but he then began debating with himself whether or not a mule could be treated like a horse and ended up being as helpful as Sancho.
While feeding and watering the donkey from her own rations, she couldn’t help but notice how well suited each steed was to its master. The donkey, though plain and simple, was sturdy and weighed down by excessive work. Rocinante, on the other hand, (or was it Jocinante? It could’ve been Hackafore, for all it mattered) had an air of more nobility but seemed much worse for wear. She couldn’t help but find it funny how their creature companions represented them as much as hers did her. Though she defined herself as a shepherdess it was in fact with goats that she roamed the countryside. Her animals were far less meek than sheep and equally less prestigious but it is these humble creatures that she cared for and chose to surround herself with despite the fact that she could afford a flock of lambs.
After her conscience confirmed that she had done what was needed for the animal’s well-being, she faced the men and said, “The donkey will need a bit of rest but he’ll be fine in a few moments. It’s a pleasure to meet your acquaintances and that of your steeds, gentlemen. I am Pastora Marcela and here with me is my flock. We are on our way to gather some berries for one of my goats who has fallen ill. I see that you’re badly injured, Don Quixote. Perhaps you would like to join me on part of my way and I can lead you to some plants that will help you greatly with your wounds.”
Upon hearing her name, Don Quixote, who was not very smooth with the maidens, proclaimed: “Why your reputation precedes you, Marcela! Along the way I heard of a man who was said to be poisoned by your beauty and tree after tree proclaimed your beauty in scars.”
These words ignited a fire in Marcela. She wanted to hurl him like a boulder from a catapult. Mixed in her burning anger was disappointment in Don Quixote. She treated him with courteous friendliness and kindness but he responded with, worse than proposals, wicked slander and a reminder of the source of her day’s ire.
“How dare you suppose to know me through the words of others that hold no bearing to me or my reality!” she said, her words cutting like a sharp sword, “Wrong are all those who blame me for these men’s death and for their grief! They aren’t dying from jealousy or mistreatment, because a woman who doesn’t love any man can’t make any man jealous. It is for this very reason that I choose the solitude of the countryside. These men do not know me and their words do not define me. I was born free and I live free. This is how I shape my reality: I choose what I do, where I stay, and the company I keep with a clean conscience. The trees on these mountains are my company, it is to them that I share my thoughts; the fruits my seclusion, my truest fruits. I do not define myself by my beauty but by my duty and my free thoughts.
“The viper doesn’t deserve to be blamed for her poison, even though she kills with it, because nature gave it to her: Her venom is inherent of her, it is a truth of her existence granted to her by a higher power. She does not choose to have it and as such should not be vilified for it.
“The viper also doesn’t deserve to be slandered, to be called a beast, because this is a bias placed upon her by man: It is not inherent of her, it is a view of her that may not be true, given to her by people. People who, unlike nature, are notoriously irrational and inconsistent, each of whom has a reality that is different from another’s. Is it rightful for you to call the viper, that has done no one any willful harm, a beast when it has shown you no reason to be called one?
“I will not be complicit to your disrespect, Don Quixote. I have shown you kindness yet you show me ignorance. I live by my word, find my happiness in caring for my flock, and, by choice, surround myself with nature’s truth instead of man’s made perceptions. I am a shepherdess in name and action. Can you say the same for yourself, Quixote?”
And as she said this she turned and she disappeared into the thick of the forest without waiting for an answer, her flock right behind her.
Note: The underlined are quotes from my printed copy of the text. Some slight alterations may have been made for grammatical purposes.