Once upon a time, there was a maiden named Dorothea. She came from a family that was not wealthy, but was hard-working and lived comfortably. When she was very young, she had had a charming prettiness, but as she grew to be a young woman, her mother saw that her beauty was radiant and felt that Dorothea was in danger and so convinced her that she was unlovely and unlovable. Each day that Dorothea looked in the mirror, she heard her mother's words, and her reflection changed so that her hair lost its silky curl and became dull, her skin flaked with dryness and had no colour, and her eyes became cold and hard. In time, she herself said the words, "I am unlovely and unlovable," and looked in the mirror to see hair like broomstraw, skin rough and patchy and eyes that pierced the soul.
There was to be a ball -- there is always a ball. This one was in honour of a visiting prince by the name of Francisco whose kingdom was bankrupt and whose family had sent him into the world to marry someone wealthy.
"I cannot go, Mother," Dorothea pleaded, "do not compel me!"
Her mother would hear none of it. "It was not an invitation, Dorothea; it was a directive." The mother could only pray that she had done her work well and that Dorothea would not fall prey to idle flatterers with charming tones.
Dorothea chose the first gown her hand touched, caring not what she wore, for what use would fine colours be if they merely adorned a scare-buzzard? She took a parting glance in her bureau glass and saw that her hair twisted in barbed ropes, her skin oozed a caustic fluid, and her eyes spat sparks of fury. She threw a scarf over the mirror and shrouded her hatefulness with a thick shawl.
At the castle, the great hall was full of richly fragrant flowers and crystal chandeliers that caught the light and sprayed it back in ever-changing rainbows. A symphony drifted around each pair of dancers in a sensual embrace. Dorothea stopped in the shadows and watched the revelry. The crowds and laughter frightened her and drew her; she wanted to flee, and she wanted to dance. She watched from under her brows, her chin tilted to her taffeta bodice. She tapped her slippered foot to the violins' song and smiled, but drew her shawl closer.
Francisco, the guest of honour, was jovial and had a laugh that echoed through the hall whenever the dancing paused. An aura of happiness surrounded him. Dorothea moved slowly around the perimeter of the room until she was near enough to hear his tales, for he had had many adventures as he'd traveled the realm. Without thinking about it, Dorothea stepped out of the shadows and joined the circle around Francisco.
He caught her eye, and she immediately glanced down and stepped back into the shadows.
"What? Have I frightened you, my sweet doe?" he called to her. When she did not reply, but instead turned away from him, he took two steps and was at her side.
"Dance with me," he said and escorted her to the centre of the room where they spun and stepped and glided to a tune that had just begun.
"Why do you hide your face?" he asked, and moved his hand to draw aside the shawl.
"I am unlovely," she said, quickly readjusting the cloth, "and unlovable." She felt he ought to know, for it was true.
The mirrors in this place must all be defective," he answered, and pulled a polished silver case from his own pocket to show her she was wrong. She looked in disbelief at this miracle.
At home, she lifted the scarf from the looking glass in her room and knew in her heart that he had lied to her; she was not lovely, not lovable, for she looked the same as ever before.
Francisco came the next day to visit Dorothea's father, as was the custom. Dorothea peeked from behind the parlor door. He winked at her and she pulled her head back, laughing silently. She went to her room and looked in the mirror. To her astonishment, her hair fell in silken curls, her skin was softly glistening, and her eyes were welcoming beds!
Francisco left and came again, and each time he visited, her mirrors performed their magic so that she wanted him always to be near her. Francisco wrote to his family that he had met his true love, that she was not wealthy but was lovely and lovable. They wrote to acknowledge that they would have to seek their fortune some other way but were happy that he had found love.
They married and Francisco brought her to his own kingdom. So well had he convinced Dorothea of her beauty that she left off her shawl and pulled her hair off her face, letting it flow down her back. She waited patiently for the initial coldness of relations between her new family and herself to thaw, for she knew that their hopes of wealth had been dashed.
One day, Francisco was sent as an emissary to an important neighbouring kingdom in hopes of securing a stronger trade relationship; Dorothea was with child and could not join him. She watched him ride away and felt her hair prickling on her neck. He was gone for a week. She looked in the mirror and saw scabs on her forehead. A week more passed, and still he was gone; her hair twisted in coarse strands. Another week and she turned away from the mirror as a spark leapt from her eye. Many more weeks passed and it was almost time for the baby to be born. She wrapped herself in a heavy shawl and turned the mirror to the wall.
At long last, Francisco returned. He slid the shawl from her head and kissed Dorothea's smooth brow and her soft lips. Her eyes lingered on his as a sailor looks upon a lighthouse in a storm, as if she were afraid to look away.
That night, their son Liam was born with a lusty cry.
One day, Dorothea clung to Francisco as he was about to leave again.
"Don't go! I beg you, stay!" and she clung to his arm. "You must not leave me, or I will perish. All that I love, all that you love will perish if you leave!"
"My sister will help you, Doe," he assured her, thinking that she only fretted over concern for the babe.
But the sister saw what Francisco did not.
"Cover your eyes with this mask," she said, "for they are cruel and hateful to me."
Even the boy arched his back and screamed when Dorothea touched him, the effusion from her fingers leaving a trace of blisters on his tender skin where she had stroked his rosy cheek. She wept and handed Liam to his aunt who soothed him.
Francisco returned to find Dorothea in her chambers, with windows shuttered and curtains drawn around her bed though it was day and the light pried at the windows. She lay as though dead.
"Doe, my doe," he said and drew back the heavy tapestry. For the first time, he saw that her skin was rough and her hair matted.
Her eyes pierced him with accusation: "You left me!" she screamed and threw her rose-vase at his head.
He had his sister draw a bath for Dorothea and carried her to it. He lay her in the water, still wearing the fine-woven cambric chemise that had adhered to some of her crusted sores, and he laved her with a silken cloth. Tenderly, he eased the matted hair. With unguents, he balmed her crackled skin. She raised his eyes to him and they were warm again.
"I will bring your mother," he said. "She will care for you and the boy while I am gone."
"Don't let her come," she pleaded. "She mustn't touch Liam!"
"I have no choice! You have scorned my sister and my friends. Shall I leave you alone?"
"Don't go," she whispered. But her mother came.
He was gone for many months this time, and returned to find that she had shorn her hair; stooks of black thorns formed a nimbus around her head, lifting the veil away from her face. She had taken the falconer's gloves and held Liam clumsily.
She had sent her mother away unwelcomed.
He lifted the veil to kiss her brow, but was repelled by the stench of her open sores, which were far worse than they had ever been before. He took Liam from her arms and left the room a stream of invectives following as he closed the door.
"Don't leave me!" she screamed and threw her slipper at the door.
When she was well enough, Francisco and Dorothea consulted a woman named Rakiel who knew magic, it was said. Some called her a witch for she could do incredible things with oils and weeds and charms. She sat before Dorothea and said, "I do not see the problem." And she turned to pour water onto a mash of green in a kettle.
Dorothea straightened and looked at Francisco.
"I am unlovely," Dorothea said. "Unlovable." Francisco stepped out into the garden.
"I cannot cure that which is untrue," Rakiel said and turned to offer Dorothea a cup of hot liquid that smelled of citrus and moss and something she knew but could not name.
When the herbalist looked up at Dorothea's eyes again, she gasped. For there were sparks flashing, molten rage that the witch had been told of, but had seen only in her nightmares.
"Ah," she said, "so it is true."
"Is there a cure?" Dorothea's heart leapt to her throat.
"There is, but you won't like it."
"I am dying!"
"With this cure, you will wish you had died."
They returned to their castle, and Dorothea packed a bag. She kissed Liam on his polished brow and held him to her until he struggled to be free. Francisco kissed her as he left her at Rakiel's cottage.
Rakiel removed Dorothea's gown and underclothing, and Dorothea stood naked and cold. Rakiel took Dorothea's hands and led her to a cot draped with many layers of soft cotton. Dorothea drank deeply from a cup that was handed to her. The liquid burned, and she swooned, but her eyes stayed open and flashed a wrath that would destroy worlds.
From her bodice Rakiel withdrew a vial of black paste and painted Dorothea's lips with it. "Lick your lips," she ordered. "The cure," she said, "is to remove it," And she drew a small, sharp knife from a pot near the hearth and drew it along Dorothea's throat. Dorothea's scream could be heard far and wide, and the animals withdrew. Rakiel swallowed her tears and steadied her hands.
Francisco who had not gone far, returned to the cottage and banged at the door. "Give her back to me!" he called. "You murderer!"
"I am saving her," Rakiel cried back. "She will die through your interference if you distract me. This is delicate work." He remained outside the cottage through the night, praying.
For hours Rakiel laboured, drawing the blade carefully and then lifting the skin tenderly, covering the exposed flesh with a mixture of honey and lavender and clean linen while Dorothea screamed and called for more of the black paste, which Rakiel only gave sparingly. "It is poison," she warned. "It eats memories."
At last, Rakiel prepared a poultice of herbs and roots. She lifted back Dorothea's eyelids and placed the poultice on her eyes. Dorothea's screams were as those from hell itself, and then she was silent. Francisco knew that she had died and, not having the heart to confront the witch, he left.
For days, Dorothea lay unable to move except with great pain, waking only to ask for more of the black paste. Finally, Rakiel refused to give more of the paste and offered a cup of broth that smelled of anthills, mustard, and vomit.
"This is foul!" Dorothea cried and flung the bowl across the room.
"It is all I can give you," Rakiel said.
For some hours, Dorothea moaned on the cot unable to sleep for the pain. Rakiel again offered the noxious-smelling broth; this time Dorothea pinched her nostrils and emptied the bowl in a moment. She gasped to keep from vomiting, and then she lay back and slept fitfully.
Rakiel sent word to Francisco that Dorothea had survived, but that he should stay away until she called him.
Weeks passed, and Dorothea was transformed. Her flesh was covered in skin as perfect as a newborn's; her hair was growing in, and played in soft, dark curls in an aureole around her alabaster face. She reached a hand to touch the soft skin that lay over the pulse at the base of her throat and turned her brown eyes toward the sound of Rakiel at the hearth, but she saw nothing, for she was blind.
"I will tell Francisco that he may come now," smiled Rakiel.
"Francisco, your husband," Rakiel laughed as if Dorothea were making jest, but Dorothea frowned. Rakiel sent an urgent message for Francisco to come quickly, hoping that his touch and voice would restore Dorothea's memory.
Rakiel met Francisco before he knocked on the cottage door.
"She is blind," she told him.
"What do I care about that? Is she well?"
Rather than answering, Rakiel opened the door to the cottage, and they entered.
"Doe," he said as he touched Dorothea's flawless cheek, but she stepped away from him.
"Does it hurt?" he asked.
"She has forgotten you," Rakiel said. "It was the black paste. Had I withheld it, the pain would have killed her -- it was bad enough as it was. But it is a poison and it devours memory, those that we hold dear as well as those that poison our very souls. They may come back; they may not. But if they do return, they do so only to destroy her."
Dorothea turned toward Francisco's voice. "You sound kind," she said, and smiled.