Throwback Tales: The Fairest

OMG It’s October! Last year, I posted weekly horror tales to celebrate the entire month. This story first appeared in Dark Fairy Tales Revisited by Horrified Press last April 2014. I hope you enjoy it. Happy almost Halloween! ❤


by K.Z. Morano

My face was a universe. The lines in my irises were sinuous rivers that disbanded to form rivulets, made to merge in the deep dark oceans of my pupils. Deeper within those oceans were worlds beyond the reach of kings, where stars and stones formed cryptic constellations trundling in the unfathomable heavens found deeper and deeper within my perfect soul. The flawless snow-white slopes of my forehead, my cheeks, my nose and my chin… The ebony curl of my eyelash… The corner of my blood-red lips… They all created curves and crannies that hinted at the existence of more secret worlds where a thousand more beautiful and mysterious things may lurk and thrive. I looked into the mirror everyday only to have it tell me what I already knew: That I was the fairest one of all.

My name was Lady Amalie, the wife of a great lord. Apart from that, I knew nothing more. Any memory of a life before that kiss was gone to me. It was a strange thing, to know nothing of oneself yet to listen to the tales sung by troubadours from shore to shore. My entire past spun from the mouths of strangers. People told stories of how the lord woke me from a seemingly perpetual sleep and rescued me from my uncertain dwelling found between death and dreaming. As if that solitary occasion were all that mattered. It wasn’t fair. No one ever asked me if I wanted to go with him.

I suppose I should’ve been thankful. My husband was as rich as sin, with a home filled with lovely and delicate things. Perhaps I would’ve been happy if he didn’t treat me like one of his possessions, a precious, fragile object to be caressed then stowed along with the other pretty things. He looked at me with a kind of greedy gaze, like how a silk merchant would estimate the value of his wares or how a landowner would consider the worth of his investment. He would be pleased and he would sigh contentedly. Some nights he would visit my chambers. He would run his old fingers, gnarled like the roots of ancient trees, along my face… gingerly, as if he were afraid that it would break. And the nerves beneath my skin would die at his touch.
I almost hated my face. But I didn’t… couldn’t. It was, after all, the only thing that was truly mine, that one truth from a past that neither my lord husband nor the poets could possibly fabricate. And so every day, I would stare at myself in that mirror, as if I could unearth something new from the way one immaculate facial feature would connect with the other.

It was during one of those moments that I saw her. For the first time, the crystalline realm of the looking glass was inhabited by a reflection apart from my own. It disturbed me deeply. That space was meant to be mine and mine alone. But as much as it pained me to share that place with someone else, what truly troubled me was the way she looked. She simply stood there like some appalling apparition, her long hair as black as ravens’ feathers, a striking contrast against the deathly pallor of her hands that hung limply at her sides. How old she was or how young, I had no way of telling. Her face was swathed in yellowing bandages, the rest of her body concealed by the dirty-white gown she was wearing. I could’ve turned around to face her. I could’ve screamed. But I didn’t. I was paralyzed, unable to feel anything except for the thunderous thumping in my chest and the icy bead of sweat trickling down my spine.
I must’ve fainted, because when I woke up, it was almost as if she had never been. So I dismissed it as nothing more than a dream. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. With each day, as I looked into the mirror, her reflection got closer and closer, close enough that I could see the spidery thread of purple veins on her hands and the greyish flesh beneath the bandages that have slowly become undone. It pained me to part with my cherished mirror. But fear prevailed over vanity and nostalgia. So I draped a blanket over the gleaming polished surface, mourning it as if it were a dead lover, then I asked the servants to take the mirror and all of its dark mysteries to be locked away in the tower. I felt as if I had lost a part of myself.

But in spite of my sacrifice, the image of her continued to linger. Her ghastly echoes in the mirror, her face bound in yellow-stained gauze, the haunting hint of a face that lay beneath… all so vivid, as if she were etched into the insides of my eyelids. The only comfort I found was in the arms of Valtin, the huntsman. I roused, breathed, existed for our secret meetings in the woods. There, veiled underneath the compassionate canopy of trees, he would make me forget the daily horrors of my life in the castle. I would lie on a dew-covered blanket of grass listening to his skin hiss against mine… and the thousand tiny voices of the forest as each bird and beast and other nocturnal beings called out to their mates. The leaves of the trees would rustle, excited by the wind’s passionate kiss. The moon would wax and wane with our breathing, the air around us heavy with the evening blossoms’ perfumed sighs. During those moments, it would be as if the whole of nature were sharing in our hearts’ jubilation, moved by our magic. Come dawn, I would melt in his arms like a mantle of snow. And I would find myself wishing, hoping with all my heart… Would that my lord husband hasten towards his grave. Would that I were a peasant’s daughter and become free to marry my beloved Valtin.

It didn’t take long for my wishes to come true. With each day, my lord husband grew older and weaker, consumed by a wasting sickness unknown to men of magic and medicine. Whatever it was, it ate away his flesh so that all that was left was skin and bone to house his gradually fading soul. In his last moments, I stood by his pauperized form. He reached out a withered arm to me. And I held his bony hand like a dutiful lady and wife and I knew that I didn’t want him to leave. What would become of me then, I wondered. Who would be there to tell me who I was? Even when I sensed that my entire past had been nothing more but artfully constructed lies condensed into a ballad, still, I needed him there, because that false fable was all that I had. Even so, I felt him slipping away from my grasp like seawater shying away from the shore. And in his waning ghost of a voice, the last thing that he said to me was: “That face… that face…” He groped my face blindly with his stick-thin fingers, dry twigs defiling the satiny skin. Then he sighed and his spirit went with that last outbreath. It wounded me that even in the brink of death, all he saw in me was my face.

The days wore on and I began to be consumed by a black inward hollowness. This new sadness propelled me to once again visit the mirror that I missed sorely. I went to the tower one day, mounting the long flight of stairs, my chest bursting with proportionate amounts of fear and excitement. I removed the dark cloth from the looking glass ever so slowly, relishing the moment, as if I were undressing my long lost paramour. Then I lovingly fingered the intricate borders of solid gold and dwarfish stones. I watched with wonder as my warm breath bloomed upon the cold glass. And once again, I became lost in the universe that was my face.

Her presence drew me back to reality. I felt her even before I saw her reflection beside my own. She was right beside me. Her breath against my skin burned like ice; the putrid stench that floated around her assaulted my senses. The bindings that covered her face came completely unraveled. And there was nothing there, only a nebulous grey gibbosity where a face should have been. The amorphous lump billowed and flattened and out came a voice– thick, muffled, and slow, as if the sound was swimming through mud. It said only this one thing: “Face.” From somewhere within me, I found the courage to break from the surface of my paralysis and I ran… out of the room and down the flight of stairs and into the safety of my chambers where I trembled and wept. The creature, whatever or whoever it was, wanted my face.

I longed for Valtin’s company, his protective embrace and his quiet strength. But tradition dictated that a widow must mourn. And so I spent my days locked inside the castle, held by layer upon layer of cold, sinister stone as if I too were dead. But what should have been torturous days of waiting turned into a kind of slow, secret solace as I discovered the small, quickly budding life inside me. I knew without doubt that it was Valtin’s child that I was carrying. I recognized the steady thrumming of its tiny heart as well as I did my own. And so despite the castle’s opaque gloom, I would radiate a glow, as if I were lit by some sacred internal flame. I carried within me an extension of myself and of Valtin. Gradually, I stopped yearning for the past that I have never known and began looking forward to the future. No longer did I feel the need to gaze upon my reflection in the enchanted looking glass. The magic growing inside me was all that I needed.

However, I could still feel the creature’s presence lurking somewhere in the shadows. A fresh spurt of terror coursed through my veins. It was no longer for myself but for my unborn child. I rushed to meet Valtin one night, bearing both happy and horrid news. He shared in both my joy and fear like no one else could. As he knelt to press his warm lips against the subtle outthrust of my womb, he vowed to me that he would find the vile creature and present its heart to me.

For the first time in several nights, I slept as soundly as a babe. At least for the first few breaths… I dreamt that I was in a strange place… somewhere between dancing and dying. And indeed I was dancing… round and round in a mechanical ballet… my feet tapping into the ground to a melody conducted from hell. I tried to stop, but I couldn’t. My shoes of glowing red-hot iron hissed against my heels, searing my skin. The smell of my own roasting flesh forced its way into my nostrils. Still, the music rose to a maddening crescendo and I felt my own iron-clad feet tap, tap, tap-tap-tapping into the floor as if I were a wind-up toy. At the edge of my vision, I saw my audience… It was the faceless creature– no longer faceless but wearing mine. She sat on a grand throne bedecked with dwarfish stones. On her head was a coronet and beside her, a prince. My trembling hands crept towards my face only to find nothing there but raw flesh– wet, weeping… I screamed. And how they laughed at me… their faces illuminated by the fire that burned my feet… cackling as if they were witches ‘round a howling pyre. But that was not the worst of it. Despite the agonizing pain, I felt the blood trickling down my thighs. I felt the fragile life inside me dissolving and seeping out of my womb. Even so, I couldn’t stop dancing… The music came to a cacophonous halt, a lone string instrument scratching against the air. Then I fell dead into the ground.

I bolted upright from my bed, bathed in ice-cold sweat. I looked down and through a pale streak of moonlight, saw my blankets blooming with blood. Aware that I was no longer dreaming, my screams shattered the bitter air.

The days passed and I remained inconsolable, secretly dreading the night that I would meet with Valtin and bring him the dreadful news. The hollow space in my womb still ached where the innocent blossoming life had been. And I wished with all the strength that was left in me that on that night, Valtin would offer me that monstrous creature’s heart. The night came and the moon shone brightly like a jewel pinned into the sky’s black velvet bosom. I walked into the forest, my footfalls muffled by the thick mist. The trees stood like sinister sentinels and the night caused familiar things to take on frightening shapes. I called out to Valtin and my small voice squeaked into the breeze, several small echoes squeaking after it. When he didn’t answer, I delved deeper into the woods, ignoring the chill that prickled my skin.
Then, it seemed to me, that it began to rain but only where I stood. The first few droplets fell onto my head with a steady pat, pat, pat… And the sticky liquid dribbled down my face, smelling and tasting of salt and metal and something more… I looked up to see my beloved Valtin speared high into the branch of a tree, his eyes gouged out, a cluster of flies buzzing inside his gaping mouth. His body had been ripped open, bathing me in the malodorous soup of his guts. I opened my mouth to scream, only to taste more of the bitter broth. Then I felt her awkward footsteps pitter-pattering into the base of my skull. I turned around to find her, the author of all my sufferings peeling through the veil of fog. In her hand was what I presumed to be Valtin’s heart. The minute crimson channels of his blood created intricate patterns with the network of purple veins on her hand. Bravely, I turned to get Valtin’s axe that I spotted leaning against the tree trunk.

She took a step towards me. I staggered from the weight of it but through some mysterious reserve of strength, I lifted the axe and let it fall into her skull with a sickening wet thump. It created a yawning scarlet gash of flesh and bone. The wound seemed to smile at me and soon, it closed, gobbling its own blood. She took another step. And my screams wafted behind me like a widow’s veil as I ran towards the castle and into safety.

Soldiers, servants and serfs hunted that night. And the days and the nights after, but none of them found the monster nor the defiled corpse of my Valtin. I was too shaken and bereaved to care about the hushed murmurs– gossip that soon spread like wildfire across the land. My mind teetered on insanity. And one by one, the servants left me.

I spent my days wandering inside the castle and my nights screaming my soul out of my body until soon, even the mice and the spiders tired of my miserable company. It was during one of those aimless wanderings that I stumbled upon a room that I have never seen before. The chamber looked no less than a temple fit for some pagan goddess. At first I had to shield my eyes, nearly blinded by its sheer resplendence. Everything had been fashioned from solid gold; dwarfish jewels winked at me obscenely here and there. It was hard to contain the startled gasp that leapt from my throat. Affixed into a luxurious fur-lined wall was the portrait of a lady. A lady that bore a face the same as mine. I didn’t believe it at first, accusing my weary eyes of playing terrible tricks on me. But as I peered closer, I saw that there was no mistaking the familiar faultless contours as smooth and white as snow, the carmine lips as bright as blood, and the ebony eyebrows that arched in perfect twin bows.

Could it be, I wondered, that my lord husband had commissioned this portrait for me? And could it be that these personal belongings– ribbons and jeweled combs– laid carefully on an ivory table, be a part of the past that I somehow failed to remember? Among the objects was a laced handkerchief with an A daintily embroidered on one corner, roses and thorns twisting around the letter. Amalie?, I wondered. But even as I tried to convince myself, I knew that the girl in the painting couldn’t have been me. I felt no special bond with the room nor with the possessions; no memories came flooding back to me. In there, I felt like an intruder, sticking my nose into someone else’s story.

That was when I saw the apple– red, round, redolent and perpetually fresh. Until then, I saw it only in books, the picture swelling provocatively from the crinkled pages. I knew it to be the fabled fruit that grew from the enchanted forest, on a tree that served as a dwarfish dwelling. I saw the small concave portion– evidence that someone had taken a bite from it. The thought baffled me. No human –king, soldier or slave– dared to pluck a fruit from the tree for no one knew what its magic would bring them. For some, it could be death. For others, some say, a kind of cursed eternal life.

Right then, I knew what I had to do. I took my warmest cloak and headed towards the enchanted forest. It had been a troublesome journey. The cruel wind bit through my skin and the trees and stones kept changing their shapes around me. Even so, I followed the silver trail that always led straight no matter how the rest of the mystic forest twisted and yawed ways. Suddenly, I found myself standing before the dwarfish tree. It was massive and time-eaten, its senile roots grappling beneath the earth. Its ponderous branches drooped downwards as if barely able to bear the immortal beauty of its fruits. Then, one by one, the dwarfs came out, all seven of them. From the soil, they sprouted themselves into being. They were brown like earth and wood, with knotted limbs and smoky beards that dripped from their sharp chins, clothing their nakedness. Gems of incomparable beauty sat on their bald heads, crowning their hideousness. One of them stroked the hem of my skirt and sniffed it with his beak-like nose. It took all of my power not to wince and lurch away.

I voiced my request. But it seemed that the old enchanted beings knew what I came for even before I left. Animatedly, dividing the chapters amongst themselves, and occasionally fighting over who got to tell the best parts, they told me what I needed to know. They recounted to me the story of how a lord’s young daughter by the name of Agnise once stole a fruit from the tree. And how she dropped into the earth, cursed to a permanent slumber. The lord, who loved her so much, had a glass coffin fashioned to contain her corpse and he would sit by her side day and night, unable to part with her and her beauty.

Eventually, for a hefty sum of gold, the dwarfs relented to the lord’s pleadings and agreed to perform for him a secret art known only by those such as themselves. And so the lord found himself a black-haired girl from some distant peasant village. She was sold to him by her starving parents for a fistful of gold coins. And the dwarfs, with their magical hands, peeled off the peasant girl’s face, did the same to the sleeping Agnise, then carefully stitched the highborn lady’s face into the peasant girl’s head. They said too that they didn’t bother placing the peasant’s face on the lord’s daughter… that it was too ugly and it would be shameful to do so. The way they had said it, it was as if they had merely gouged Agnise’s eyes with a spoon then slipped the orbs into the hollow sockets where my own eyes had been. Perhaps that’s exactly what they had done. I didn’t care anymore. All I knew was that my face, the only thing that I thought was truly mine had been nothing more than another one of the lord’s elaborate lies.

A ball of hurt and hatred and sorrow molded itself in the pit of my stomach and it rose to my chest, then to my throat to escape through my mouth as a scream. I ran all the way back to the castle with the fantastic whorls of the forest reaching out to grab me. Once or twice, I strayed from the silver path and the branches of trees clawed at my skin and seized my hair. Snakelike vines crawled to strangle me and from their places in the shadows, I felt the eyes of all the forest’s mystical beings pursue me. Still, I was able to reach the castle and the tower where I had banished the cursed looking glass.

For the last time, I stared at my reflection. But where before the sight of it filled me with pride and pleasure, it came to repulse me. And before I got lost again in the universe of my –no, not mine– Agnise’s face, I grabbed the chair and hurled it towards the mirror. The mirror seemed to scream at me just before I broke it, then I heard it explode into a thousand little voices. Their screams seemed to magnify and swell out towards the worlds beyond. I watched my reflection shatter into infinitesimal fleeing fragments, not minding that I bathed myself in a shower of sharp splinters and disturbed dust. Then, as I lay on the floor, as broken as my reflection, I heard the sad rustling of silk against the floor and the awkward pattering of her footsteps as she walked towards me. I smelled her too– part rot, part hope. A hope for a new life, I guessed. I myself felt like I never truly existed.

I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a silvery shard of glass and a thought flickered in my head. I laughed… a long, hollow laugh causing the crystal smithereens around me to rattle. I reached for that piece of mirror and dug and dragged the pointed edge across the margins of my face, taking care not to harm the perfection of her forehead, her cheeks, her nose and her chin.
Then with my bare fingers, I plucked the eyes from my flayed face and handed them to her like an offering. I felt her take them from me… felt the burning coldness of her touch brush against my flesh.

In my mind, her prince found her. And so ensorcelled was he by her great beauty that he wished to take her with him to his kingdom. But this time, he would ask her first. Yes, that would be nice… And she would answer according to her heart’s desire. Finally, they would live happily ever after. After all, that’s how it’s always supposed to be. Except for me.

Copyright: © 2014 K.Z. Morano