The Ins and Outs of Beauty
© Robin Wood 1998

This is a story that happened long ago, when the jeweled fishes could still swim through the air, and the bright birds could sing beneath the water. For the water was as clear and light as air, and there wasn't a whisker of difference between them, except the mirror-bright surface where they met.

In those days there lived beneath the lake a certain man, who was the headman of his village. His home was all decorated with freshwater pearls, and brightly colored stones. The lake grass grew thick and emerald green all around it, and the silver fishes swam in and out of the windows while the birds sang all about. It was so full of virtue and love that it shone with it's own light, and it was wondrous to behold.

Now this man had a son, tall and strong, with clean limbs and broad shoulders. His hair was as golden as sunshine, and his eyes were the clear blue-green of the lake itself. He promised to become a great headman himself in his time, for he was as honest and kind as he was handsome; and he was very handsome indeed.

His chief delight was to explore; and he often took the path of brightly colored stones, and followed it up out of the lake and onto the shore, for there was no reason not to. And there he would explore the land, and see things that were strange and marvelous to him.

So it happened that one day, while he was wandering the land, he came across a maiden, combing her hair by a still pool, and using the surface of the water as her mirror.

She was lovely. Her hair was long and thick; as dark as shadow, and as lustrous as the night. Her eyes were just the color of the evening sky when the first star appears. Her skin was smooth and flawless, and her shape was such as would appeal to any man. As she combed her hair, she sang, and her voice was as sweet as a nightingale's. All in all, she was a delight to the eyes!

But she had one horrible flaw. She was vain.

And not the kind of vanity anyone might expect in a young woman as lovely as she; which sees her own loveliness and seeks to show herself always in as good a light as possible.

No, she had the terrible vanity which sees nothing except her own loveliness. And anything else she saw, she saw only in terms of how it could serve her beauty, or set it off.

But as she sat there, combing her hair and singing, this was not apparent.

So the youth saw her, and was smitten.

And he picked up a pebble from the brightly colored path; one that was just the same blue-violet as her eyes. And he plucked grass, and wove a net with clever fingers, and caught the pebble in the net, and fashioned a web that would reach around her neck. And so her made for her a beautiful necklace, with golden grasses and the bright pebble, to mirror the beauty of her eyes.

And he approached her, and went down on one knee, and said, "Oh beautiful maiden! I have seen you sitting here, and my heart is smitten with love for you. You have made me powerless, and all I can think of is you. For the thought of you, my knees have grown weak, and my loins stir, and my mouth is too dry to speak of how lovely you are, or how sweetly you sing. So I have made for you this necklace, to show you how much I love you, for there are no words to show you.

"Pray take it, and come with me, and be my wife, and live with me beneath the lake."

And he held out the necklace to her, and lowered his eyes.

She looked at him, and saw he was comely and clever. And she decided that his golden hair would be the perfect foil for her dark locks, and that he would set her own beauty off admirably. And she wanted the necklace, as well, for the pebble matched her eyes perfectly, and it was very well made. So she said, "Oh youth, you are comely, and well spoken. You have won my heart. I will go with you beneath the lake, and be your wife."

Then his heart was glad, and he jumped to his feet, and settled the necklace around her smooth neck, and took her in his arms; and she was as sweet to hold as she looked.

So they took the brightly colored path back under the lake, hand in hand.

Now the father saw them coming, and he rejoiced, for his son's face shone with love and joy, and she was very beautiful. But as they approached, his heart was troubled; for although his son looked at nothing except his new bride, and his eyes overflowed with love, the maid seemed to be looking at everything except his son, and the look in her eyes spoke more of avarice.

But he excused her in his mind, for his son's sake, and thought, "Well; but all of this is new to her, and must be very strange and wonderful. So I will welcome her as a daughter."

And so he did. And he caused a great feast to be laid out, and there was eating and drinking and rejoicing for days, and everyone in the village danced at the wedding, and admired the bride.

But as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, it became apparent that the bride could always be found in front of the mirror the youth had made for her by cunningly capturing a bubble of air in a cage of withys. And it seemed that although many admired her, none was more devoted in her admiration than she herself.

Still, she was very lovely.

And the months became seasons, and the seasons passed until a full half-year had gone by.

Then the young husband came to his bride, where she was sitting trying the effect of a new comb in her hair. And he said to her, "My beloved."

And she replied, "What do you want now?" For so she spoke when she was interrupted at her toilet.

And he answered, "It has now been six months since you came to live with me as my wife, here beneath the lake. I had hoped that your womb would have quickened by now, and we might be expecting a child soon. And yet your courses run as regularly now as they did when you were a maid. Might there be something wrong? Should we perhaps consult the Priestess, in her capacity as healer?"

Then she threw down her comb, and turned to him, and said, "There is nothing wrong. I am not yet ready to bear a child, that is all. This is all still new to me, and there is much to learn here, and much to see and do. Let us wait a little while more before we think about a child." And she smiled, to placate him. And she was very lovely.

So he smiled back, and kissed her, and left with a light heart.

But as the seasons passed, it became apparent that she did not, in fact, seek to learn anything, or to do anything except sit in front of her glass, arranging her hair, or trying new clothes or adornments.

She would not help him in governing the village. For although she was quite willing to dress her hair in fantastic braids, and put on beautiful clothing, and sit in the high seat for everyone to admire she was quite unwilling to learn anything about the villagers, or to mediate in their disputes.

She would not help in the harvest, or in preserving or storing the food and grain, or even in sharing it out to the families of the village as it was needed. For although she was quite willing to stand at the door of the grainery, dressed in bright clothing with garlands in her hair for all to admire, she was not willing to toil, or become hot and sweaty gathering the food. She was not willing to risk cutting her fingers to cut the fruit into strips to dry. She was not willing to let her hands become chapped or callused wrestling with the bags of grain.

She would not even help at feast time! For although she was quite willing to don sumptuous clothing, and sing sweet songs for all to admire, she was not willing to risk getting scorched to help with the baking, or to risk getting a bit of food spilled on her to help with the serving. She was not even willing to dance, lest someone crush her dress, or scuff her shoes with clumsy feet!

And so as the seasons passed into years, the people of the village admired her less and less, for although she was very lovely, she did nothing! And they came to realize that her loveliness was all on the outside, and not on the in. Until at last the only people in the whole village who still admired her were her long suffering husband, and she herself!

And she was so absorbed in herself that she never even noticed.

And at every quarter, when the season changed, her husband would go to her, and ask her when she would be ready to start their family. But she never was.

And so it went, until three long years had passed.

And when the day came that it had been three years since she arrived under the lake, he went to her, as was his custom, and said, "Oh wife, are you ready yet to begin to bear a child? For I tell you truly, my father is getting old. And I would that he could see his grandchildren, and play with them, and teach them wisdom before he dies."

Then she turned on him, and snarled, and somehow she no longer looked so lovely. And she said, "What do I care for your old father? Ever you are after me to bear a child! Well, this is your answer! I will never bear you a child! I have no desire to become all swollen and ugly in childbearing! I don't want some infant sucking my breasts until they become flat and pendulous! I don't want my belly stretched out until it flaps in the wind! My beauty should be enough for you! And if it isn't, then I'll leave you, and find another man who can appreciate me as I deserve!"

And with that she turned back to her mirror.

But her words completely opened her husband's eyes at last, and he saw her for exactly the woman that she was, and knew that the woman he had loved had never existed.

Then he was filled with a great and terrible rage, and the water around him was near boiling because of it. And yet his voice was gentle as he spoke, and it was all the more terrible because of that.

"Then go," he said.

And her heart was filled with dread, and she turned to face him again.

"Leave me!" he said, in a voice of quiet thunder. "And never come under the lake again! Not you, nor any of your kind! No longer will our countries intermingle!! From this moment forth, you and all your people shall never again be able to breath in my land, and attempting to come here shall mean death to you all!"

And he reached out and grasped the necklace he had made for her so long before, and ripped it from her neck. "I see you now as you really are! And so shall all men see you!"

And he turned and strode from the room.

But she opened her mouth to scream, and found that she couldn't draw breath to do it! For her mouth filled with water, and it choked her. Then she tried to run, but her feet could find no purchase on the floor, for the water became thick, and heavy, as we see it now, and it caught her up and expelled her, thrusting her through the roof, and shooting her to the surface of the lake, where a great wave caught her, and flung her onto the shore. And there she lay; cold, wet, bedraggled, and choking.

After a time, she dragged herself to the edge, to console herself with her own reflection. And then she screamed in truth! For her loveliness was no more. Now her outward self reflected her inward self. Her breasts were flat, and shriveled. Her eyes and hair were dull and lifeless. Her form was bony. And the expression on her face was as pinched and self important as it always should have been.

So she did not ever have to bear a child, for no man would have her. And she had to turn to, and work as any woman did; but she had never done so before, and so she had no skill at it. And no one admired her for anything at all.

Now whether she realized where she had made her mistake, and learned from it, and became a better woman or no is grist for another story. For this one ends here.

But from that day to this, the people who live under the lake do not come onto dry land, nor may we go beneath the lake for longer than the space of a breath. The jeweled fishes no longer swim through our air, nor do our birds sing beneath the water. And the many colored path is long gone, for that way is closed to us forever.