The curse of beauty - Editor
Beauty Loves Warts
by Christine Irving
Some women would give anything to be beautiful, but Myra was cursed with beauty so extreme that it gave her no peace. Her hair alone doomed her. Each strand differed slightly in hue and texture from the next. Color flowed and sparkled through her moving tresses like wind sweeping across a field of wildflowers. Her skin darkened or paled according to the light or her mood. No one could classify her race. Some men swore her nose could alter definition when they turned their heads, preventing them from memorizing the beloved features. Only her body never changed its welcoming contours. Her hips remained generous, breasts full, waist narrow. Age made no inroads on her beauty; it simply enhanced, richened, buffed and glossed the glow.
Gallant men galloped to the rescue every time she leaned out the top window of her tower to scrub the window panes. Young women hid among her rose bushes leaving gifts of poetry, seed cakes and candles so that her front stoop never ceased to resemble an altar. Once, two would-be knights hacked each other to death on her front lawn. She had no friends, no lovers, no gossips, no mentors; not even a paid companion. The servants inevitably succumbed to bribes or sold stories and pictures to sleazy magazines and newspapers. Her beauty left women fearful, bashful, envious or enraged. Ordinary men believed her a goddess and never dared an approach. Assertive ones tried to take, own, protect or exploit her. Experiencing no relationships, she lacked social skills and so rejected as false the few genuine offers of friendship she did encounter.
Gradually she stopped going out altogether, replaced the window panes with silvered one-way mirrors, raised a bramble hedge around the property and imported moles to live beneath the smooth green turf. After several years the memory of her great beauty faded, becoming a tall tale infrequently told.
The moles saved her. One morning, as she lay slumped across the kitchen table sound asleep with an REI catalog crumbled beneath her, her arm jerked and sent cold coffee splashing across her nose. A large black shadow slid across the window. Mopping her face with a dish towel, Myra opened the door to the back yard and saw a trio of small birds in pursuit of an angry crow. The tiny body of a mole lay sprawled on the ground below. A bright pearl of blood caught her eye. She ran barefoot across the wet grass and slid her hand beneath the wounded creature.
The forgotten lore of her childhood returned in a rush. Holding her right hand steady and flat she gathered clean tea towels and emptied a cookie tin with her left. A cushioned box, she remembered, was vital to the operation. She set the mole in its new nest and rummaged in the junk drawer for cheesecloth, antibiotic ointment, magnifying glass and nose dropper. Examination revealed only one wound, a deep stab from beak or talon, which seemed to have penetrated only the fleshy part of the upper thigh. Now what did moles eat? Ah! Earthworms! She thought that chicken broth might do instead and almost cried with joy as the animal swallowed three drops before falling to sleep.
The mole recovered and resumed its old routines. Myra never did. She stopped sending away for camping equipment and began ordering binoculars, cameras and field guides to local birds, plants and animals. The hours spent in surveillance led her to devise observation platforms that angled out from the tower windows. She planted ivy around the base of the tower and it soon covered the walls and platforms with a screen of thick leaves. The ivy worked out so well, Myra continued to dig and plant‑ butterfly bushes, hickory trees, raspberry canes, mint, bayberry, wild thyme, sunflowers and sassafras. The world inside the bramble hedge became a wild snarl of overlapping limbs and vines with only one narrow green tunnel leading to the oversize mail box outside her gate. During the quiet winter months, she continued her studies by listening for hours to taped bird song, coyote cry and cricket call until she could whistle, crackle and croak in a hundred new languages.
One March day a flock of wild geese flew across Myra’s private jungle. Their honks and hollers fell into the overgrown garden and became trapped there, fluttering around Myra like a cloud of invisible hands.
“Hurry up, hurry up!”
“Remember that delicious weed on the lake by…”
Let’s go, let’s go!”
“Faster, gosling, you’ll fall behind”
Their voices prodded her up and around the spiral staircase to her bedroom. Wrapped in the yearning calls of the flock she rolled a down sleeping bag, tied it to the lightweight aluminum frame of her backpack and pulled on pigskin hiking boots, now five years out-of-fashion.
Myra’s beauty never faded, but she had long since cropped her fabulous hair to keep it from catching on stickers and twigs. A solid tan covered the subtle play of color in her face and mirrored sunglasses hid the famous eyes. There was no denying her magnificent figure, but some body shapes look better in Oshkosh overalls than others; wide-hipped buxom women are not flattered by a style designed for lanky railroad engineers.
Not a soul noticed her as the garden gate creaked open. Myra passed back into the world without a single ripple and headed south.
Two days passed before she spoke to anyone. A long low wolf whistle shattered her calm. It came from a convertible parked by the side of the road. The hood was up. A handsome man leaned against the fender leering at her. She would have hurried by if the dog hadn’t barked.
The bark had come from the front seat. Myra strolled over and looked down into a pair of black button eyes. “I don’t speak Dog,” she told it.
Behind her the man laughed. “You don’t have a cell phone do you?”
Myra turned. “Choke collars are bad for dogs.”
“How do you know if you don’t speak Dog?”
She regarded him coldly.
“Sorry, sorry, what kind of collar should he have?
“He should wear a harness, and no I don’t have a cell phone.”
“What about an Allen wrench?” The man laughed again and made a dismissive gesture. “Joke. I think I could fix the car if I had the right tool.”
“I’ll trade you for the dog.”
“You’re kidding right? You’d take my dog? Forget it. You don’t have a wrench anyway. Do you? I mean, you have no idea how badly I need to get to town. My whole future depends on it. If I miss this opportunity there won’t be another one.”
Myra pulled out the jackknife that could assume forty-four configurations and handed it to him.
“Keep it,” she said.
She turned her back and continued on her way, already forgetting him as she rounded the next curve. An hour later, the sound of an approaching engine moved her off the road. She turned as the convertible slowed. The man leaned across the front seat and dropped the squirming dog over the edge of the passenger door. “He’s yours.” He shifted into first and looked at her again. “Do me a favor. Take off those shades for a minute.”
Myra tugged on the brim of her cap and shoved the oversize sunglass firmly up her nose. She crossed her arms and distended her stomach.
“All right, all right. No offense.”
As he drove off, the terrier shook himself all over. The red leash slapped against Myra’s ankle and she bent down to unhook it. “Sure you can keep up?”
The button eyes stared at her disdainfully.
“What do I call you? Come here, let me see that collar. Scooter! What kind of name is that? How about, Scoot?”
The stub tail wagged in agreement. Myra weighed the heavy silver links in her hand for a minute, then stuffed the choke chain in her back pack. “Scoot it is. Let’s go.”
Myra continued to head south and Scoot either lagged behind, exploring old game trails, or raced ahead, following fresh scent. Three times she had to rescue him from trouble.
Once she found him caught in a wicked half sprung trap. The trapper had been careless, leaving enough twigs and pinecones in the litter that concealed his snare so the teeth snapped only half way shut. Myra bathed the bloody paw in a stream and ripped up a t-shirt to form a makeshift bandage, grateful the bones had not broken.
A few days later, good as new, Scoot wriggled under a wire fence to chase a flock of chickens. He ran down a squawking bird just before the farmer’s hand closed around his own neck. It cost Myra the price of the hen plus an extra fifty dollars to pay for all the eggs it would have laid. The farmer caught her arm as she turned to go, staring through the shapeless denim at the form below. Scoot growled at the hand, exposing two rows of needle teeth. Reluctantly the man released her but she felt his eyes all the way across the field.
By that time their travels had lead them into wilder country. The chicken farm, a small poor place, marked the edge of human habitation. Now oak and ash, sycamore and hickory grew tall and the underbrush thinned beneath the thick canopy. Scoot’s third encounter came late one afternoon after a hot trek up and down a steep and rocky ravine. Myra called a halt and prepared to slip the heavy pack from her shoulders. Before she could unbuckle the straps, Scoot’s sharp bark rang through the forest. He sounded defiant and afraid. With a sigh she started toward the sound. She had never heard that tone before. A frightened whimper, like the moan of a small child, caused her to tread quietly.
Scoot had backed into the hollow of a granite boulder. He could retreat no farther. In front of him coiled a hissing copperhead. The snake threatened with small darts of its triangular head. It twitched angrily each time the dog barked. Myra slipped the pack from her shoulders and slid her hand down between her extra pair of jeans and a package of dried beans. The weight of the metal had dragged the collar to the bottom, but she found it easily. Slipping behind a tangle of brush, she extended her arm into the small clearing. Holding one end between her fingers, Myra began to twirl the chain in a slow circle. When the copperhead turned to look at it Myra let the chain go. As the snake struck at the silver flash she yelled, “Run, Scoot, run!”
When Myra woke the next morning, he had disappeared. Not even a foot print marked his passing. The silver chain lay in a small heap beside her sleeping bag. Myra wrapped Scoot’s collar around her wrist and fastened it in place. She mourned the little dog’s absence, but felt in her heart that he had left for a purpose, of his own accord.
Two days later she came to a fork in the path. In the middle of the right hand way lay a neat pile of dog scat. The right hand path lay due south. Myra stepped over the pile and continued on her way. She walked about a mile before the path ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff. Scoot had tried to warn her to go the other way! She re-traced her steps and started again. The left hand path continued to fork, but now Myra paid close attention to Scoot’s spoor.
Presently the trail joined a brook. As Myra walked beside it, the stream grew into a small river that alternated between rushing through rapids and spreading into calm pools. Mid-afternoon on the third day, she began to hear frogs. Towards dusk, the chorus increased in intensity. The moon rose long before the sun had set. Creamy gold and full, it promised to flood the world with silver light as soon as the sky behind it darkened. Myra decided to keep going. The noise of the frogs would surely murder sleep and with moonlight to guide her, she could walk all night.
Just as she reached her decision, a light blinked on behind a clump of willows. Before she could react, a hoarse voice croaked, “Don’t be afraid. Come in. Come in.”
Suddenly Scoot’s familiar bark cut the air, silencing the frogs. He came bounding around the willows and leapt toward her arms, knocking her onto her back and climbing on her chest to nuzzle and lick her‑ “You’re here! You’re here. You found us! Oh, aren’t I clever to have led the way!”
He did a little victory dance around her then ran in short bursts back and forth between Myra and the willows. She began to follow him; then stopped still as the ugliest woman she had ever seen rounded the trees and came toward her.
She was old and squat with a broad low forehead and protuberant hazel eyes. Her thinning hennaed hair had faded to a dull orange. A length of old camouflage cloth wound around her hips, like a kind of sarong. Liver spots dotted the sagging breasts and her nipples had flattened into dark aureoles. Her skin seemed to carry a greenish tint, but in the mixed light of fading sun and waxing moon everything had taken on an odd unearthly glow.
“The dog is correct,” rasped the old woman. “You are anticipated and welcome. Come have some supper.”
As she spoke, frog song boomed forth once more. “It isn’t frog legs is it?” blurted Myra.
Silence filled the night. The woman’s eyes peered balefully into her own. Scoot whined piteously
“No,” she said at last. “Not frog legs.”
It was river trout, pulled moist and pink from a homemade smoker beside the front door, then added in succulent chunks to a broth of tangy greens and root vegetables. No one spoke until Myra pulled a chocolate bar from her pack and divided it into two pieces. She shoved the largest toward the crone.
“Thank you for dinner. It tasted wonderful. May I ask your name?”
“You may ask till the cows come home. It doesn’t mean I shall tell you. Do you go around giving your name away for free?”
“No one’s asked me in a long time,” said Myra. “What do you want for yours?”
“There’s a sauna down by the river. I fired it up this afternoon when Scoot told me you were getting close. Go out there and steam for an hour. Put on the clothes you’ll find beside the door and leave everything else behind.”
“Then you’ll tell me who you are?”
“I agree to tell you my name. As for the rest, we’ll see.”
Myra pulled her hat brim even lower. She crossed and re-crossed her arms and picked at the buckle on her overalls. The dog tugged at her pant leg. The old woman turned her back and began washing dishes. Myra sighed and started down a narrow path between the trees.
The sauna turned out to be a low round hut of willow woven together and covered with a thick blanket of pine branches. Scoot waited impatiently for her to undress and pushed in beside her as she crawled through the narrow opening. The dark interior seemed larger than it appeared from the outside. A pit full of glowing rocks took up the center of the earth floor. A bucket of water stood beside it with a cedar branch laid across the top. Myra dipped the needles into the bucket and flicked water across the hot stones. Steam rose up around them washing away weeks of grime and sore muscles.
Myra found a clean length of faded blue cotton beside the threshold and wrapped it around herself. The worn material clung to her as she moved, outlining her voluptuous body. Hers hair had grown since she left home. Without the jackknife to cut it, she’d simply stuffed it up under her hat. Now ringlets clung to her temples and cascaded down her neck. Scoot’s appearance had changed too. His matted coat shone golden in the lamplight. Myra attacked both their curls with a wire brush until every last tangle had come undone.
Scoot could barely contain his cockiness as he pranced proudly into the kitchen.
The old woman’s eyes bulged out even farther in appreciation.
“You don’t fool me, Grandmother,” laughed Myra. “I know you saw me from the start. Now pay up. I kept my bargain.”
“My name is Carlotta. Just as you were cursed with extreme beauty, so was I cursed with extreme ugliness. From my earliest days I was regarded as a freak, tormented and tortured by both children and adults, with never a moment’s privacy or anonymity in any public place.
Myra nodded eagerly. Her pulses raced as she listened to Carlotta tell the story of her loneliness, her peculiar dependencies and stratagems, her final retreat to the river. Myra had never expected to find anyone to understand her story. It had been many years since she allowed herself to feel the longing for a friend.
The two women sat up late, late into the night laughing and sobbing, but mostly talking without cease, until at last Carlotta’s voice gave up all pretense of being anything other than a croak. They rose late the next morning and spent the day in silence, smiling as they worked together to complete the household tasks. After dinner, the old woman said, “I want you to study with me.”
Carlotta picked up the spatula she had used to serve lasagna and waddled into the center of the room. Outside the frog voices stilled and into the silence. Carlotta croaked three times. They were real croaks. Myra understood them perfectly.
Carlotta had said, “Shed my skin.”
Suddenly she began to spin, slowly at first and then faster and faster so that the garish hair stood on end. After a time, she began to slow but her hair had changed. It sprang from a small perfectly proportioned forehead in thick auburn waves and tumbled down across an elegant bosom whose pert nipples puckered into tight pink nubs. The greenish tint had faded, leaving pale translucent skin. Only a slight phosphorescent gleam highlighted the perfect cheekbones. Carlotta’s eyes remained the same clear hazel, but they had retreated behind thick eyelashes and delicately curving brows. In her upraised hand the spatula had turned into a banded coral snake. The sarong had become a flounced skirt with green, brown and yellow tiers cascading to the floor from a narrow wasp waist.
Myra gasped and bowed. For the first time in her life she felt plain and ordinary.
Carlotta laughed and spun back into herself.
“You can teach me to be ugly, can’t you?” asked Myra.
“And everything in between, my dear. You can be anyone you want to be, man, woman or child.”
“When do we start?”
“Right now. We’ll begin and end with frogs; creatures of metamorphosis, harbingers of our planet’s health. Frogs live on both land and water and are both nocturnal and diurnal. They are creatures of myth, fairy tale and magic, long associated with fertility and the power of regeneration. Because you already know their language your apprenticeship will not take as long as mine did. Are you ready?”
Myra’s first night set the pattern for the months to come. She spent hours in observation, sometimes in the company of Carlotta and Scoot, sometimes alone. She drew, painted, sculpted and journaled frogs. She learned to sing with the chorus, swim with tadpoles and adults, and sleep with her eyes open. She spent one dreadful never-to-be-repeated week eating what they ate. Her proudest moment came when the frogs accepted her so completely that they gave her a frog name and greeted her with it.
The time with the frogs prepared her for further training with Carlotta. She studied the chemistry, biology and the anatomy of frogs, their prey and predators. Carlotta taught her the herbal lore of all the river plants. Together they read aloud a hundred stories and fables. Finally, Carlotta began to teach her spells and charms.
The more Myra learned, the softer she grew. The bitter eccentricities of long exile melted away under the warmth of Carlotta and Scoot’s affection. As she learned to distinguish one frog from another she grew to believe that humans, too, led infinitely complex and varied lives. The resentment and hurts of her early years faded in the excitement and rewards of her relationship with the world around her.
As she watched the frogs appear, grow, live and die with terrifying rapidity, Myra chose again and again to love individual frogs. In accepting their deaths as a part of the natural cycle of things, Myra accepted her own role in the great circle of life, death, and rebirth.
Gradually, Myra began to understand that she must return to the human world and begin to teach what she had learned. It was the hardest lesson of all. The very thought of it filled her with dread. She quit practicing her spells and dropped the long-established routine of work and study. With Scoot as companion, she left the river bank and climbed high into the mountains. There she spent long hours lying in the sun trying to ignore the demanding call.
Finally, Myra surrendered and returned to Carlotta for her final test. Slowly, she unwound the silver chain from around her wrist and held it up in her left hand. Croaking the words, “Shed my skin,” she began to spin. When she stopped, her back had grown a hump. Her beautiful nose had hooked until it almost touched the out-thrust chin. A large wart on her left cheek drew attention away from the emerald eyes that even scraggly gray bangs could not disguise.
That night a flock of wild geese flew over the house on the river.
The next morning Myra packed her backpack and hugged both Carlotta and Scoot for a long time. The silver chain glinted as she raised her wrist in farewell. She set out wearing her own beautiful guise, feeling herself reflected and contained in the beauty of nature. The wisdom of the frogs sustained her. She was wise in the use of warts.