Penelope ran through the overcrowded marketplace of Draka while gripping onto an armful of peaches to throw in her sack. Some tumbled to the dirt ground, weaving between her legs as she occasionally glanced behind her. She no longer saw or heard the man that had been chasing her from his fruit stand. Relieved, she slowed down, releasing a mischievous grin to celebrate another successful theft. Half the size of everyone else, she casually walked through the busy markets while taking a juicy bite from a giant peach that she clung onto.
Penelope was a survivor of The Eastern Plague and was carried into Draka by boat when she was a young child. Draka was in a treaty with other sovereign lands, and one of the agreements had been to assist in foreign aid. They sent hundreds of their biggest vessels to retrieve thousands of survivors from the affected lands and islands. The orphaned children that were brought in would be held up for adoption to the citizens of Draka, and any left behind, including Penelope, were to be shipped on another vessel to Wonder Island.
As Penelope stood in line with the other children to board the ship, she overheard an older girl say that Wonder Island did not exist and that they were being shipped to an island as slaves. The moment their supervisor walked away, a horde of children, including Penelope, disbanded from the line and ran away from the port into the open streets of the city. Ever since, Penelope lived in the streets of Draka.
One morning, Penelope realized she had eaten all of her stolen fruit. Her empty stomach rumbled, so she ventured back into the crowded streets for another mission of theft in the hectic marketplace. Penelope would usually go to a stand that sold freshly caught fish. The owner was a frail old woman, no taller than the tattered wooden counter she would sit behind. This allowed Penelope to easily sneak from around the front and slip a fish into a cloth and run.
After doing this for many months, Penelope routinely made her way back. She noticed a new massive stand had opened up right beside the old lady. It was wildly popular with people in line, waiving coins in the air and yelling at the workers behind the large display of fish. Penelope counted at least twelve workers behind the beautiful wooden display which showcased vast variety of freshly caught seafood. There was much to choose from and the endless amount of customers kept the workers extremely busy. It was easy for Penelope to walk to the side of the stand and slip many untended fish into her cloth. She did not feel nervous nor feel the need to run, as the crowds and workers were too preoccupied with each other. Penelope walked away and noticed the old lady at her desolate tiny stand who usually kept herself busy by knitting. Penelope turned her head back around and left the market satisfied with her cloth full of fish.
Several weeks later on a sunny afternoon, Penelope made her way down to the fish stand and was readying her cloth for the next heist. The stand was busier than often as customers occupied her usual spot on the side. As she waited for them to clear, she noticed a shimmer coming from the ground. It was a coin. A few moments passed and the coin had stayed unnoticed. Penelope made her way over and slowly bent down to pick it up. She scurried away in case its owner confronted her, but no one came. She unclenched her fist to reveal the shiny embossed emblem of Draka. Penelope marveled at the brilliant shine of the coin which sparkled in every angle. It had been the first time she held real money. Penelope tucked it in her pocket with a gleaming smile and stood back at her spot as originally planned.
While waiting, she kept peering over to the old lady who had been sitting behind her vacant fish stand. She had not one single customer since Penelope arrived. She peacefully continued to knit while her neighboring vendor thrived. Penelope sympathized with the old lady. She thought of all the times she would steal from her and felt a tremendous rush of guilt.
Penelope walked towards the front of her stand so that the old lady could see her. She pulled out the coin and spoke to the old lady.
“May I purchase a fish?” she asked. The old lady looked at the small girl.
“Yes, but how will you pay in the next sunrise, when dirt will not shine as bright?” The old lady replied. Penelope slowly lowered her hand holding the coin. She did not know whether to run or stay.
Penelope replied, “I do not know—”
“Will you pay me in mud from which your integrity bathes in? Dirt can only purchase more dirt, which the world can indeed supply you with to become filthy rich.” The old lady remarked, cutting Penelope off, a few tears shedding down her cheek.
She continued, “Your string of tears is your integrity begging to be found like the coin you picked up. Let it wash away the dirt slowly but surely, and you shall shine brighter than a thousand coins.” Penelope continued to tear as the old lady paused for a brief moment before offering her the largest fish at no cost for the exchange of Penelope’s help the following morning.
Penelope was confused and did not know how to reply. She finally mustered a few words and agreed to meet the old lady in the morning at the stand. The old lady got up and carefully grabbed her largest fish from the display, wrapped it in a cloth, and handed it to Penelope. The little girl reached out with her timid hand to give the coin in exchange, but the old lady refused it.
“Keep this coin until it uncovers your true reflection,” she said and sat back down on her chair to resume knitting. Penelope wiped her tears and thanked her before awkwardly turning around to leave. Still confused about the entire situation, she looked back to ask the old lady a question but hesitated and continued walking away. She started to weep and then ran.
The next morning before sunset, the old woman stood at her stand waiting for Penelope. With no sign of her, she left. Many mornings had passed with no sign of Penelope until she finally appeared. The old lady hinted for Penelope to follow her as they walked away from the empty stand towards a nearby cove that was nestled between two small mountains. The old lady guided Penelope through a hidden walkway to get down to a thin wooden dock floating in the water. There was a small wooden boat attached to it by rope and inside was a large cloth hiding objects underneath it. Penelope hesitated to get on the boat but finally jumped on after the old lady untied the dock anchor and slowly drifted away.
They paddled so far out into the ocean that the cove became a dot in the horizon. As the sun bled over the water and light started to appear, the old lady uncovered the cloth. There were empty crates and buckets of fishing bait, a worn out wooden rod, and clumps of string that knotted around. They were both quiet until the old lady started speaking to Penelope. “I shall teach you to catch fish,” she said while giving the knotted string to Penelope. “First, you must free your string of every knot.” They spent the next few hours in the water fishing, although Penelope had spent it all undoing knots.
They arrived back to their stand before the market opened. Every vendor was preparing for the day except for an old man who sat in front of them. His small wooden horses were already laid out neatly on his table. He sat in silence with his eyes closed. Penelope stared at him while continuing to help the old lady place their freshly caught fish on display. The old lady gifted Penelope a wrapped fish and asked her to meet again in the morning, to which Penelope nodded with a smile and left.
The next morning came and Penelope continued to unknot the mess of strings while watching the old lady catch fish. As they were setting up their display later that morning, Penelope eagerly asked the old lady to meet again as she felt enthusiastic and determined to catch a fish soon.
The following morning, Penelope casted her fishing rod clumsily as her baited string bubbled into the water and sank below. After a while, she felt a tug and awoke with a rush of excitement. As she pulled her rod up, the string broke and made Penelope fall backwards. The old lady smiled at the saddened young girl who sat on her bottom in disappointment. She then took hold of Penelope’s string and stroked it gently through her fingertips until suddenly stopping. The old lady grabbed Penelope’s hand and made her feel the spot she had stopped at. “Hidden knots can be blind to the eye but felt with great certainty, and those are the most important to untangle,” the old lady said and continued fishing on her own.
Several months had passed and Penelope eventually started to catch a few fish.
One morning before sunset, she met with the old lady who was taking apart her stand. The old lady explained that she had become tired and wanted to retire far away from the city. Penelope started to cry as she saw the old lady as her closest friend. She sniffled and wiped her cheeks while pulling out the coin from her pocket. It was still as shiny as the day she found it. “You still have yet to take my coin,” Penelope said as she reached out to give the coin to the old lady.
Again, she refused it and told Penelope, “I cannot accept a coin which has already been spent.” Penelope looked confused and asked what she had meant. The old lady continued, “This coin has bought you a lifetime supply of fish.”
As Penelope stared into the coin, she noticed that within the brilliant shine of the surface rested a reflection of herself.