CURSE OF BEAUTY



CURSE OF BEAUTY, by Marlena Frank

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She knew she was beautiful. In fact, she found it painfully obvious. Catharine owned no mirrors and her windows had no glass. There was not a scrap of reflective metal in her house, and even her image in the river was a wave of motion. No, Catharine had come to rely on the opinions of the others who came looking for her. And they always came.

She would travel out into the forest, a tune swimming from her lips and up towards the bright blue summer sky. She sang while on the hunt, while fetching water, while bathing. It simply was impossible to resist when the only sounds were the chirping of birds and the whispering wind. She never thought of it as a skill worth much merit, but her throat never tired and she never became winded. It was as natural to her as the rising sun was to the blue jay. It simply happened.

Mother had always warned her of the dangers. Singing in the woods would only bring heartache. The louder you sang, the more dangerous. So of course, Catharine had sung her hardest when she was little. Belting out tunes along the jagged river bank or while skipping through the deer paths. Yet somehow Mother knew, and she’d lock Catharine up in the cellar for a night without supper, with only the gleam of moonlight seeping through the cracks and the scurrying of mice to keep her company. A place like that didn’t inspire song, only silence and guilt, but perhaps that was what Mother wanted all along for her beautiful daughter. Catharine would never know. Mother disappeared when she was a child, when Catharine’s hair was so long she could almost sweep the floor with a dance. Mother warned her to stay put, that danger was coming towards them and she needed to keep silent, her ruby eyes darting back and forth. That was the last she saw of her mother, stalking into the woods with her bow in hand.

Catharine had been so frightened she didn’t make a sound for a week. She stayed hidden in the tiny wooden house in the woods, with its chimney leaning against one of the tallest oaks. The rains had come and gone that week, and Mother never returned. Since that day the little girl chopped her hair short and learned to live on her own. She learned to keep to herself, and never, ever, would she sing to the top of her lungs as she had as a child.

These days Catharine was grown up, independent. She knew the forests like the back of her hand and could even point out the busiest bird nests and rabbit holes. It was a sunny day and the sky was a brilliant blue, with stripes of clouds darting across. Catharine gathered up her quiver and bow, a hum already on her lips. The wooden door was old and creaked heavily on its hinges, but it still kept the wind and rains at bay. She avoided the splinters in the handle as she pulled it closed, the scent of the morning dew fresh upon the breeze. It was a tad bit chilly, but not so much that she needed a cloak. Her three cats stretched and purred as they woke from slumber. Eyes was the black one. She had a striking emerald gaze that watched everything with an equal helping of suspicion. Pies was a tubby orange tabby that always wanted her belly scratched before her head, and tiny white Cries used her most pitiful high-pitched yowl whenever she wanted something, just like she was doing now.

“If you’re so very hungry you could just catch your food instead of begging for mine.”

Cries seemed to take that into consideration for a moment, but it was probably easier to make a fuss. Catharine was convinced they were the laziest cats in the land. Every day they begged for food, and every day she gave in. They were her only friends though, and at times it could get quite lonely.

“I’m all out of rabbit,” she explained to Pies, whose orange eyes watched from over her belly as Catharine adjusted her quiver. “So I’ll have to go out and find something for the four of us.” She smiled at the trio before heading into the woods, the leaves alight with red and orange light from the rising sun.

#

Her feet knew the path well, and already a song was on her lips. It had no lyrics, only the dogmatic rhythm she carried with her on the hunt. It had been difficult at first, figuring out how to use Mother’s spare bow and arrows, but she’d caught on after a few failures. Mother had practiced quite often, and although Catharine had accompanied her numerous times, she’d never imagined she would one day be on her own.

The trees were more spaced apart the further she went. The canopy was owned by the giant oaks and maples that had called this forest home for hundreds of years. This was where she would find game, but it was also the easiest place to be seen. She pushed her song down to a hum, like a flicker of flame lowered to a tiny ember. She found an oak whose trunk had split in three places, and hunkered down to wait. The minutes passed quite slowly here, the wind rustling the leaves overhead and her legs already protesting the position. Catharine knew patience though and waited.

Leaves crunched with an unsteady gate, and she spotted a shadow in the distance. Something stood behind a thick elm surrounded by saplings and brambles, but she could just make out something brown move on the other side. She lifted her bow. A deer would give them more food than a rabbit ever could. It would mean the four would eat quite heartily for several weeks instead of several days. She aimed through the split of the oak, waited for the deer to emerge around the tree, then let the arrow fly with a great burst of song.

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Only just as she let go, the deer turned its head, a very human head topped with a leather cap. She must have shifted the limb of her bow ever so slightly, because the arrow missed its target and instead shattered against the elm’s trunk. Wood splintered, bark scattered, and all of it flew straight into the man’s face.

#

She raced across the forest floor, kicking through mounds of leaves. The man had fallen to the ground and was turned away from her, but at least he was breathing.

“Are you alright?” She asked.

“Oh, my sweet lady,” the man shuddered. “I have travelled so far to hear your lovely voice!” He crawled to his feet. Bits of wood and bark were stuck to his face, from both the sap and the blood. His cap and cloak had been made from deer hide, she realized. The arrow had missed his skull at least, but his eyes were covered with red welts, and blood dripped over his beard and clothes. “You’re hurt,” she said. “You must come back with me. I don’t know how you managed it, but that could strike you blind if we don’t hurry.”

“I heard your song and I looked up, wanting to see you,” he smiled as though he was immune to the pain. “I should have known better, sweet lady. Please,” he reached out and took hold of her wrist. “I must tell you this first! Damn these eyes, I must tell you my feelings!”

Catharine shook her head and tried to drag him with her, but he wouldn’t budge.

“Long have I lived in the valley below, and for years I’ve heard your voice waft down as if the gods were taunting me. I told myself that I would find you and that you would one day be mine. The beautiful lady of the woods!” A thin smile came across his lips and despite his haggard, bloodied face, he looked remarkably jovial. “And here you are. It’s as if Cupid himself struck me blind at your beauty!”

She was growing impatient. He needed rest and instead he was rambling. “Have you a name?”

His head tilted to the side and a dumb grin fell across his lips as she spoke, then he pulled himself out of his stupor once more. “I’m sorry?”

“A name, sir. A name!”

He brought her hand close, and patted it gently. “Telis, dear lady.” He acted as though this was quite normal, being struck blind in the woods.

“Sir Telis, I must embark grave news upon you, and I hope you shall listen closely. I am not yours, nor do I belong to anyone. I am cursed, much like my mother, and I would appreciate being left alone in my woods. I will bring you back with me, but only to heal your wounds for which I am responsible. Nothing more, foolish Telis.”

His bushy eyebrows slanted, “But I have traveled so far!”

She pulled her hand free from his, “Then you have done so in vain.” The air was still as though the entire forest held its breath. Catharine had not known anger often, but when it did visit, it was a most cruel thing.

Telis was quiet a moment, wringing his hands with worry even as his eyes continued to bleed. “Please I meant you no harm, fair lady. Pay no heed of me, for I am nothing more than a poor fool of a man, as you so aptly called me. Lead and I shall follow.”

She took his hand and began walking back to the house. Telis was far shorter than she, and far more rotund as well, but there was an air of kindness about him that was genuine if perhaps naïve. He was peculiar and unlike any of the villagers she had come across before. Men from the village often wanted to hunt her down. They came with spears and swords, and sometimes even pistols, but upon seeing Catharine they would drop their weapons, their devices of violence, and claim their love to her. Catharine was not sure what to make of it when it first happened. She had thought the first man had gone mad from prolonged time in the forest, but it happened again and again. She often wondered if these men were the danger to which Mother had referred.

Telis though was very different from the others. Usually once they were injured they snapped out of their stupor as though they’d been bitten by flame. He had never wanted to slay her. Instead he came unarmed and professed his love without once laying eyes on her. Perhaps he was in fact mad, and the others had been sane after all. Either way by the time she reached the clearing of her tiny home, she felt rather horrible treating him the way she had.

Sleek Eyes arched her back and bushed out her black tail as Catharine brought Telis closer to the house. Pies took a moment to get to her feet and nearly tumbled over Cries as they scurried under the porch. Only after Catharine reassured her friends that their guest was truly welcome did they calm.

“I’m sorry, they aren’t used to guests.”

“It’s alright,” Telis smiled as Catharine set him down on one of the rickety stools inside. His head lolled about, “Is this where you live? It smells like earth.”

Catharine arched an eyebrow at him, “Yes, and I think it smells of rotting wood. You are a funny one, Telis. It is a wonder you made it so far on your own.” She mixed a broth of warm water and herbs, and soaked a cloth within.

“Hearing your voice kept me going, sweet lady. It sounded fairer than a flock of nightingales.” Even though she was tending to his wounds, and the pain must have been sharp, he still smiled.

She frowned a moment before replying, “You are the first man who has not wanted to kill me, Telis. And you are likely the first and only to fall in love with me before you could even see me.”

Telis was trembling, “There are many who fear you, lady. Many who say you lure men to their deaths in these woods.”

Catharine laughed outright at that, “Lure men to their deaths? How ridiculous! They come hunting my death, and I am forced to defend myself. You are the first to actually speak to me as though I am human and not some silly beast.”

He seemed surprised, “You are human then? They say you are a siren with a voice of beauty and a face so hideous that men are driven mad by it.”

“A siren? Is that what they call my people? I’m not sure, Mother never mentioned that.”

“Your mother… she came to the village once, didn’t she?” Catharine’s eyes went wide, but Telis could not see her surprise. “She was brought in by a group of hunters, her mouth gagged and her head covered with a black cloth so no one could see her face. They were afraid she would bewitch them. I – I recall seeing it happen when I was very young…”

Catharine felt tears welling up, but she wiped them away quickly. It was the fate she had always feared. “She didn’t deserve that.”

Telis put a hand on her arm, “I am sorry, I hadn’t realized… To hear it from such a bumbling fool too – oh forgive me, beautiful lady!”

She dried her eyes with a scoff, “You know not what you speak, Telis. How do you know I am beautiful? I could be a hideous hag with a face reminiscent of a frog’s behind!”

“Because,” he whispered, his hands trailing up her face to wipe at her tears. “Your voice, your kindness – how could you be hideous with such a kind heart and beautiful voice?”

She backed away from his touch, something about the way he spoke – it disturbed her. He wasn’t one of the regular hunters, and he had no intention of trying to kill her. She had seen what her appearance had done to the others, how their entire countenance had flown away upon gazing at her. Yet this man was not afraid. If anything he was drawn in despite the danger.

“I – I must hunt.” Catharine was surprised at the difficulty it took to speak. “We have no food left, and you must build your strength if you are to heal.

Telis nodded, his face brightening even with his eyes bandaged. “I will wait here for you then, lady. Thank you again.”

She took up her bow and headed out the door, nearly tripping over the trio of curious cats at her feet.

“Honestly ladies! Show a bit of respect, won’t you?” She pushed through them and out into the wilderness. She was uncertain how she felt about keeping the man alone with her, but to turn him away might mean killing him, and she couldn’t bring herself to that level. Not when the man was innocent and obviously a fool.

#

The days passed quite pleasantly for the two uncertain companions, and Telis was slowly gaining strength as his eyes healed. Catharine never found another deer, but a couple of hares were a nice compensation for a few days. Later in the week the storms rolled in, and she and Telis were forced to stay indoors in the small shack as the rain came down in sheets. Catharine lit the fireplace and checked Telis’ eyes once again, unwrapping the bandage with cautious fingers.

Eyes was perched on top of the dining table, watching them through half-lidded eyes. The thunder and lightning shook the shack so forcefully that even Cries had grown quiet and was hiding underneath the covers in Catharine’s bed. Pies on the other hand, could frankly care less for the noise and commotion. She’d taken up the evening in the makeshift hammock Catharine had put up for Telis to sleep in, and weighed it down so that underneath all you could see was a round, heavy bump where she lay.

“How does it feel?” Catharine had to raise her voice slightly to be heard over the rain.

“It is painful still, but I find it helps immensely when I hear you sing. It’s as though the wound is no longer even there.” She probed her fingers along the red, scarred tissue. His eyes were swollen shut still, but each day the improvement was obvious, especially with the daily herbs she applied. “It appears to be coming along nicely. Just a few more days and you should have your sight back.”

His chilly, coarse hands took hers and brought them to his lips. His beard felt prickly against the back of her hand, and her cheeks went crimson as she pulled her fingers loose from his. “Telis, what are you doing?”

He smiled, and though his eyes were still red and swollen, he looked quite handsome as he faced her. “Wooing a beautiful woman.”

She shook her head, leaning up against the tiny table. “No, you have it wrong, my friend. I am a siren if you recall, and do not have the pleasure of calling myself a true woman.”

“Very well then,” he sighed, the firelight flickering off his worn face, and a sly grin on his lips. “Perhaps I am wooing a beautiful siren then?”

Catharine folded her arms. “What if the rumors they say are true? What if I do lure men to their deaths with the sound of my voice? What will you do if you see me, and you lose all reason? What then?”

He was quiet a moment, his brow furrowed with thought. Eyes’ looked between the two of them, curiosity twitching her tail. “Then perhaps it is best if I never see you then, lady.”

She laughed, “That is a high price to pay simply to be in my company, foolish Telis. Are you sure it is worth it?”

“I would give a thousand eyes to stay by your side. You have made me the happiest I have ever been. Being near you feels like a dream, one that I would never wish to leave. Why should I not keep it that way?”

“But Telis surely you don’t intend to –“

“Can you sing something for me?”

She blinked, “I suppose.”

“Then sing something. Sing something to drive away this rain, to blow away this lightning. Sing something so beautiful that the very clouds divide for you.”

“I dare not!” She gasped, “The last time I did that, Mother was captured by those hunters. They heard me in the village and took their vengeance out on her.” Her voice trembled more than she liked.

“Damn the villagers,” he spat. “Sing for me. Sing for your woods and the ugly rain outside. I will handle them if they come for you. You cannot live in fear of your voice, sweet lady. For it is as much a part of you as… as my heart is.”

She didn’t know what to say. She was utterly speechless, and yet already a tune had come to her lips. She started out with a low hum that built into a torrent that shook the walls of the shack. The rain outside could no longer be heard, and yet it didn’t hurt Telis’ ears or those of the three cats. In fact, they all stared at her with amazement and wonder as their minds were taken to hers, and they saw the beauty of her spirit spill out before them: the anguish, the sorrow, the love, the laughter. They stood amid green, leafy trees after a summer rain, chilled by the white snowy hills of winter, and gazed at the cloudless blue sky. They were transcended along the wayward river of song that Catharine placed before them. She was their guide, their storyteller, speaking in a language they didn’t even realize they knew. When finally the tune came to an end, the torrent of rain had fallen to a sprinkle. The three cats were all together on the dining table, watching her and purring. Tears were streaming down Telis’ face.

“That was the most beautiful song I have ever heard, fair lady.”

She smiled at him, and leaned forward to wipe his tears aside. “Please Telis. Call me Catharine.”

#

The next morning Catharine found that she could not keep her voice silent. Telis had shown her a part of herself that she had never known, a bit of courage that was sturdier than the oldest oak. As she hunted, her song was joined by the birds and crickets and frogs; she felt a connection with them that she hadn’t known for ages. This was where she belonged. She was wanted. She was loved. For the first time in her life, she wasn’t afraid of her gift.

With two wild turkeys in hand, she headed back to the house before midday. That was when she saw something most unusual. Eyes was bounding toward her with a speed Catharine had seen only when she was hunting mice. She leapt up into Catharine’s arms, shaking from snout to tail. There was trouble, and it was so terrible even brave Eyes had been forced to flee.

Catharine hid the turkeys, and pulled out her bow as she crept back to the house. She swallowed down the fearful tune that wanted to take her tongue, and went uphill to see if she could get a better vantage. That was when she smelled smoke, not just of fire but gunpowder. With a gasp she sprinted to the peak of the hill to look over the edge at her house below. There were men there now, villagers by their dress, and not just one. There must have been at least ten of them. At the foot of the doorway was Telis, lying in a pool of his own blood, his eyes still freshly bandaged from that morning. In one hand he held a large kitchen knife, dipped in blood. She couldn’t look away from him any more than she could stop the growl rising in her throat.

They had heard her last night, she realized as she stared down at his motionless body. They had heard her song and come with their guns and their hatred. Telis hadn’t had a chance. Now he was dead before she had even gotten to know him, before he had even been able to recover his sight. Just as the first tendrils of affection began to burn through her cold defenses, built from years of terror and isolation, just as she began to feel that she belonged, it was all destroyed in a single morning. These killers from the village came and stomped out her one chance for happiness before it had barely begun to sprout. As fire rose up from her small wooden home and encompassed the tall, powerful oak tree it leaned against, a heat filled her. A new song came to her lips, and it was a far cry from the cheerful, whimsical love of last night. This was a song of vengeance.

She shrieked into the sky and the killers turned toward her, terror filling their faces. Never before had Catharine felt such rage. Was this what Mother had feared when those hunters dragged her to the village? She would have hated to see their home destroyed. Catharine’s shriek rose to a higher pitch and she rushed down the side of the cliff at such a speed that her feet barely touched the ground. Guns were fired, but fear disrupted their aim.

As she drew near, many fell to their knees, clutching their ears and crying out for mercy, but Catharine would show them none. Mercy was a luxury only one man had shown her, and his blood stained the dirt beneath their feet. She picked up a short sword from where the closest had dropped it, and cut the man’s head from his shoulders in a single slice. Without allowing her shriek to falter, she stepped over another who was rolling on the ground, blood seeping out from between his fingers as he tried to cover his ears. Another approached, somehow managing to stand, and held out a dagger as curses fell from his lips. She sliced him vertically and watched as he crumpled to the ground.

She tore through them without care, until finally she stood above Telis. They had shot him through the chest, and he still had a hand covering the gaping wound. The rage fled as quickly as it had come, then her voice gave out. She crouched down by Telis, trembling and trying to catch her breath. She held him close and dragged her fingers along the prickling whiskers of his beard, along those lips that felt cold despite the raging fire near.

A sob broke through and she cried for foolish Telis, for her shattered dreams, and for their lost happiness. She cried knowing that she truly was the monster they so feared, but mostly she cried for the inescapable loneliness that draped over her like a familiar cloak.

 

END

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A writer of both fantasy and horror, Marlena’s work is in a smattering of anthologies. Her stories lean toward weird horror, creature horror, and YA fantasy. She typically thinks up strange tales while sipping sweet tea at her Georgia home, listening to podcasts on her hour-long commute, or while reading a good book with her two cats.

 

 

 


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