Published in Issue 15 of Visionary Tongue, 2001.
‘Féa! Féa! Féa! My dearest darling Féa. What a lovely name you possess! It leaves one to wonder what on heaven’s earth could have possessed your dear mother to confer it upon you. What, with a face like yours! So soft, so sweet. It wants only to be whispered. And to think! a sound so divine with you as its bearer. Whatever could your mother have been thinking?’
That was the cry that beckoned me during all my real life days. Those who would call me by name are not to be given the benefit of the doubt. They knew all too well what my mother had in mind, tagging me Féa the moment she laid eyes on me. Why it’s meaning, what else?
My story is not a long one to tell, unless I were to dwell upon fading details which would only recall a dull ache to my heart, reminiscent of those I had in living. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps. But the world at large beheld me as not fit to be seen, starting with my own sweet mother who took one curious look at me and looked no more.
They say a mother’s love is unconditional, that it can conquer all. They say a mother will see her child as beautiful, no matter what! as it is her own. My mother saw me and knew my name.
Not everyone mocked my uncomeliness. There were those, girls my own age and their mothers, who did not turn their heads at my sight. Decked out in nature’s loveliest forms, they would smile on me, deigning to stroke my knobby shoulder, all the while reassuring me with words dripping with sweetness, bursting with wisdom.
‘Féa, don’t worry, dearest. Someday you’ll outgrow your name. Give it a few years.’
That’s what the daughters said. Their mothers’ words sounded more equivocal, though I understood them not.
‘Féa, my child, all things must come to an end. Bad things too. God would never be so cruel as to have it otherwise. And always remember this. Though you may feel wronged it is not for you to judge.’
Then mothers would smile lovingly on daughters, reveling in their own past looks and glory, and they’d walk off arm and arm, the original’s vanity supporting the copy’s and vice versa. Meanstwhile I, idiot that I was, believed what I could of their grand words forgetting their smiles and gestures.
The first time such advice came my way I ran off like the wind until I found the tallest tree. I stood with my back against its trunk, knife in hand. With the thrill and terror that comes with performing black magic, I slashed its back to mark the height I was that day. Every year afterwards I checked the mark to see how I had grown. And I found (to my delight!) like grass I had! or the beanstalk. But I did not outgrow my name, which grew on me as I grew more hideous with each passing day.
An ugly infant must be marveled at, an ugly child mocked or pitied; and an ugly woman despised and condemned, as though her very being were all her own doing.
My mother had to feed me, clothe me, give me shelter until I was of age. That was law, and custom. I left her in peace after fifteen summers, the time when maidens who’d come into the world the same year as I were married off.
I left without dowry, or a cent to my name. Yet I had hope of living a life in accordance with God’s law, of keeping myself by His word and my hand. Nature had cursed me with a face of rot. But He had blessed me with a touch of gold.
Sweater. Coat. Hat or sock. If it be something to make I made it beautiful. And in that way, I came to earn my keep in a time when women did pull the needle and turn the wheel but could not open shop.
I never blossomed. My breasts, my hips, my hollow belly never grew to know what fullness is. So my mouth was never searched by a tongue not my own, and my legs never opened to a prick of invited intrusion. With needle in hand – in and out, in and out, in and out – I worked miracles in material. And I opened shop.
I made my home and worked in a place many weeks walk from my natal village. People came from all around to buy my wares and gaze upon the miracle offered by the sight of me, ugly as sin, giving birth to works whose virtue was their beauty. Wretchedness spinning loveliness. Was the world coming to an end? The people prepared themselves, thinking this a sign.
They gazed and stared and wondered. They clicked their tongues. In the beginning, when they came, I feared becoming a spectacle. My father had always threatened to sell me to the travelling circus. ‘They’re offering a fair price,’ he would tell my mother. ‘More than feeding a crooked mouth such as hers is worth.’
My mother would hear it over and over, every word. But I stayed. Perhaps there is some truth to what they say about a mother’s love.
But it had stayed too, the fear of appearing in a spectacle. And there I was, full of fear, thinking I was becoming one. But those who came to see me sew and spin were also fearful. Filled with the fear of God they were. Imagining themselves to be beholding a miracle, they looked favourably upon me, thinking God might look favourably on them and their crops. Thus it was that beyond the sloping sides of hills, further than the eye could see, people began to say, especially to scold beautiful maidens who passed their time before mirrors, or on their high horses looking down at the blemished of the earth: ‘Pretty is as Féa does.’
My downfall was my doing, Nature’s design. Though my body knew no fullness, sap was full to overflowing in the vessels of my groin. But I had my virtue to uphold. That was law, and custom.
I know some might think, ‘Who does she imagine would have taken her had she been undressed and laid out on a fine oak table?’
Who would have kissed this deformed mouth of mine or that other mouth whose layers would not offer the slightest resistance to being opened by prying hands as do the fresh crisp leaves of the heart of a lettuce. No, as you may have guessed, those private folds of mine were like the outermost leaves of an old lettuce head, brownish-green and sagging, wanting only to be stripped and tossed away.
And my breasts, like caves – why should they be explored when men want only to move mountains? My head sitting atop my shoulders, my legs connected directly to my back. No neck to bruise, no butt to ride! Yes, and I know as well as any other woman that men, like dogs, need to leave their mark, and like sailors dream of mounting tides.
With not even a lobe of ear to pull and tug away at, my virtue should have remained the best kept secret in the world. Concealed between sealed legs. So, what happened? The explanation is simple. Just as men gather to see a spectacle, they’ll gather to lay one too.
I had several proposals, on numerous occasions, from two or three gentleman who wished to make it a night and gather in my name. I knew their ways well.
There was a girl in my new village not half as horrid as myself. I must say it was to her disadvantage to have been so ugly in such an ordinary way. She had never been marvelled at, nor pitied, nor condemned. There was nothing awesome in her ugliness. Her ugliness was spoken of, as are all commonplace things, like the colour of her hair. ‘Tell ugly Olga with the mouse brown hair to go fetch the milk to make the cheese.’
Ugly Olga never got herself a single man, but three at a time they’d take her on. They’d cover her head with a potato sack. One would take her from behind while the other took her from the front. The third reaped his pleasure from inside her mouth, whose lips were thin as a snake’s but whose tongue was wet and tasty.
No secret was made of their goings-on. They took her to secluded spots so nearby that any man might pass that way, and did. Some would stop and take a turn. Others would put it off till another time. The town tongues wagged till the women were in the know, and ugly Olga shunned by all.
Why did Olga do it? Why did she squander herself, give the men a good laugh and a warm place to relieve themselves at her expense and at no cost to themselves? I’ll tell you why. The sap was overflowing in the vessels of her groin, and she was too ugly for an ordinary man to make an honest woman of her. All her doing. Nature’s design.
Now listen carefully, those of you whose limbs grace you softly as the flower’s petals do the stem. The mere thought of my crooked legs spread in a scalene V, my contorted face grimacing in Eros’ embrace, my blotched face bursting with blood, my balding head damp against their bare chests, my caved in chest heaving huhuhu to heaven, my claw-like toes and nails clutching their calves and shoulders, put those men with a mind to have me in a way of senseless delirium.
Two or three began huddling around me, whispering with lurid looks, ‘Come on, Féa. Let us gather in your name.’ The simple sound of my name whispered lightly by their dripping mouths made me fuller than the greatest river during spring’s first melt and my deaths-head throb with the blood of pleasure.
I fought their advances as best I could, never forgetting Olga’s fate. Giving into their perversity and my unfulfilled pleasure would have certainly meant my downfall. I would have lost my status as a miracle worker, and my ability to earn my keep. And unsightly as I was, I could expect no one else to provide it for me.
I prayed for an answer when I felt myself losing the struggle, when felt myself melting, giving way to ‘Féas’ whispered on the sly.
The night I gave up on a virtuous answer being provided, an angel of darkness responded to my call.
‘Come and let us gather in your name, Féa.’ Three men whispered and slipped away. I could resist no longer. So, I put down my needles. For once, I wouldn’t work into the wee hours.
I put on my coat and hat, sneaked out of my shop, feeling the watch already on. A curtain was pulled back. A pair of eyes peered out. I walked down the silent village street until I reached the path that led to Mr Miller’s old, abandoned barn. Though spring was on its way, a sharp bite cut through the night air. The moon was rising bright and full in form, lighting my path as it travelled its own.
After a bend in the dirt road, I saw the barn up ahead. I didn’t hesitate, for fear of turning back. I walked on, quickness in my step, the friction of my uppermost thighs, the only fleshy part of me, sparking preliminary warmth. I would be ready on arrival.
As I got closer, I heard voices coming from the barn. I walked in and stood in the entrance. The three men stopped talking and drinking their brew. One man raised a lantern. All three stared at me, their faces aghast. Then, as though suddenly remembering the fulfilment this face of mine would bring, their faces broke into grins filled with new blood. One lifted a bottle in toast to me,
‘Where two or three gather in your name. Here’s to you Féa. We’ll make a woman of you yet.’
They passed the bottle around. I would be next.
One man started unloosening his buckle, his eyes on me. There was no backing out. They wouldn’t have let me had I tried. I was there. I was theirs. It was as simple as that. Nothing like a change of mind would have moved their rustic natures. I was there; I was theirs.
‘Come here, Féa,’ one said holding up the light. ‘Let us get a better look at you.’
I moved in close enough to feel the lantern’s brightness on my face, and squinted to save my eyes.
‘Féa is as Féa does.’ They burst out in laughter and toasted me, and my name, once more.
They hadn’t fouled me yet, but my fate, as had been Olga’s before me, was as good as sealed.
They licked brew from their lips. They’d moved in close enough for me to smell the odour of rotten oats on their breath. My rivers began to overflow even as my fate swam in my eyes. One laid a moist, heavy hand on my knobbly shoulder.
That’s when a shadow expanded over the entire ceiling of the barn. Like an eagle spreading its wings, two sides of darkness spanned the ceiling overhead. We must have felt it, sensed it before we saw it. We all looked up. But the maker of the shadow was, of course, at the entrance to the barn. Not above us.
‘Good evening. Having a party and didn’t invite me?’
I turned. We stared at the door. One man raised the lantern to get a better look at what we were facing. The stranger lifted a bent elbow. Like a black wing, it flapped over his face.
‘Lower that light.’
His word had been spoken and heard as command by men who’d taken orders from lords since their earliest days.
‘Put it on the ground.’
I heard the lantern’s base touch the floor of the barn.
‘Is she not a virgin? Have you not heard of feudal rights?’
‘Yes, my lord,’ the three mumbled, the words of one stumbling over the words of the other, in their fear not even knowing whose lord they were addressing.
The men made their way towards the door, stepping softly. My saviour opened his black cape to show them the way out. One by one, they stepped towards the threshold, then through the entrance. There in the darkness I could not see whether they had walked into the night or vanished inside his cape.
‘No need to be afraid, Féa.’
I heard steps approaching.
‘What is it you wanted from that swine? Has no one ever told you if you show your pearls to swine they will demean them?’
Flames burned where eyes should have been, lighting up a face, white and smooth as a porcelain plate. A lower lip glowed thick and red, as though gorged with blood.
‘Féa, what could they teach you of pleasure? That humiliation’s pleasures, especially when well nurtured, are the most acute? Hence, the sweetest?’
The stranger laughed quietly, pleasantly, as though amused at the errors of a well-meaning but otherwise foolish child.
‘I’ll show you pleasure’s virtues and take you at your worth. Otherwise, Féa, pleasures aren’t worth the having. Take my word for it. Flesh broken, blood spilt, a spring melt. Over in a moment, it will leave no trace. I’ll take you for what you’re worth, and leave you with a memory that will burn your blood. I’ll teach you to taste pleasure’s delight, not its stench. But for a price.’
This creature of darkness went on speaking, and I didn’t miss a word. Wretched as they were, I did have two ears.
‘I’ll wipe your unwept tears away and give you something worth crying over. Or is it possible, Féa, you know not your own worth?’
Who’d ever suggested I was worth any more than a piece of beautifully fashioned cloth? I had no recollection of such a person, and hardly knew what he meant.
Entrusting my memory to his care, I went without a word of reply and lay my head on a clump of rotting hay. I closed my eyes. I’d seen all I wanted to see for a lifetime. Life, as I knew it, had seen enough of me.
Like a huge black bird he spread the sides of his cape and kneeled over me. He overwhelmed me until just before the cock’s turn to cry and I could cry no more.
‘My lord,’ I said sadly afterwards, ‘I have no neck to offer you for all your trouble.’
He held my crooked hand in his, ice cold. He turned it over and over and then stroked my palm, kindling new pleasure in the process.
‘No need to despair Féa. A neck is but a detail.’
My wrist supplied the vein he wanted.
Now when I go back to drink the blood of the village cows and pigs I hear the people talking about me. Even in the throes of grappling with the mystery of their perpetually dying livestock, Féa is still on their minds and lips.
‘Another cow gone.’
‘She slit her wrist. You should have seen it! Took her own life.’
‘The cow’s calf is bound to follow her.’
‘It’s a sign, I tell you. We must prepare. We don’t want to get caught unprepared.’
‘Wallowed in her lust then couldn’t face her shame.’
‘She’s finally where she belongs, I dare say.’
Little do they know that it is I who kill their cattle. They might prepare, prepare themselves for poverty, a condition that will make them earthly heirs when the good day arrives. A sign.
World without end! The old dead cow was a sign of nothing more than my thirst to live through another sleeping day.
My shame! What could they know of my shame, I who had none to speak of! Wallowed in her lust! they say, when I bathed in a torrent that flushed me downstream and carried me out to sea. What would they know of that!
With moonlight as my witness, my bath was prolonged in a rocking ocean whose salt cured wounds carved deep into my being. Human works of art. Once soothed, like a lone piece of timber wood I drifted out to a death that promised not the hardships of eternal day but brought the splendid calm of an infinite night.
Cannot face her shame!
I simply cannot bear the light of day that never showed me to advantage.