She Ugly

by Katie Karian
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No father wants any man to look at his daughter the wrong way. Most fathers follow behind their daughters with fisted knuckles and glaring eyes, willing the first man to make the wrong move. And most fathers take precautions. My best friend Koharig never leaves her home without wearing a veil over her face and hair and with an armed servant following her every footstep. My father, on the other hand, went too far.

My name is Ardimis. They named me for the goddess Diana, who ironically enough did nasty things to men who looked at her. I imagine it was my father’s idea to name me that, a threat to unfortunates who tread too close. Just as it was his idea to arrange for a magic woman from the village to attend my baptism. The magic woman stared into my cradle, pointed a finger, and pronounced a curse over my baby head.

Father called it a blessing and was rather pleased with the woman’s work. I didn’t quite get it as a baby, for obvious reasons. Babies don’t care what they look like, as long as people love and feed them. But as I grew older, so I realized that there was something wrong with me.

If I am alone or with only women, I look like myself. Meaning, I have dark eyes, silky black hair, and perfect olive skin. Glamorous, if I don’t say so myself. But if I enter a room with mixed company, suddenly I turn into a mess. My hair turns a strange purplish-red color, like a badly mixed dye. My eyes become yellow, and we shall not even talk about my painfully pockmarked skin.

“Do not worry, my Ardimis. You know your true beauty and the right person will see it at the right time.” These soothing words came from my mother, but I could see the strain on her face. Not that she had anything to fear for my future.

I was my father’s daughter, and he was the richest farmer in our side of the country. We never went hungry at our house. That was enough to draw any desperate young man my way with a solid gold ring, no matter what I looked like.

The problem was my feelings. I’ve always been a regular sort of girl. I wanted to be pretty and have people admire me. But even my brothers, Rafi and Tir, have never seen me as anything but a horrible hag who cracks windows by her sheer ugliness when she walks in a room. They weren’t shy in saying so every chance they got.

I never let on how much their words hurt – not just because they were true from my brothers’ perspective, but also because I knew it could be different. If they could only see me as I saw myself, I should be the happiest girl alive.

“You shall get used to it in time,” Koharig said while fluffing at her smooth black hair in a mirror. She had to wrap herself in a veil afterwards, but that never stopped her from wearing her best cosmetics and perfumes and thinking that a wild man would come along and tear her veil off and be amazed by her maidenly beauty. Sarkis, her manservant, would slaughter him the next moment, but that was the cost of glorious admiration. At least, she could daydream. My curse was a veil that no man could tear away.

“I shall never get used to it,” I told my friend with an enormous sniffle. “I shall live the rest of my life disgusting the men folk. And then when I die, I shall become the monstrous thing which lingers in closets until the right moment to terrify manly souls to death.” And I was only half joking. Koharig knew and clasped my hand warmly.

We both went out, Koharig wearing her veils and me my ugly face. We paused near the cotton fields where the men worked. I noticed the good mood of Koharig’s father and brothers. Their forms were animated as they plucked the cotton, and they were singing a common bar song at the top of their lungs.

“My father is entertaining tonight,” Koharig said with a sideways glance at me. “You want to know more?” She didn’t wait for my answer. “It is a man.”

Koharig pulled her veils away from her face a little so I could see her eyes. They were brilliant with excitement. Or if you were in a dour mood as I was at that moment, you’d say she looked insane with her eyes widened to twice their usual size.

“Do you know what this means? I shall likely be married soon. With any luck, it’s a man who owns his own land, who can take me away from all of this.” She waved her hands about like the brilliant green land and craggy mountains that surrounded us was disgusting to her.

I lowered my eyes and commented that she didn’t know what she was talking about. “How shall he learn to love you if you are wearing a veil in his presence?”

She tsked at me and reached for my hand, squeezing it. “You must get over the whole looks thing. It is unimportant in the real world. Men do like a pleasant voice and friendliness – I can manage that well enough despite my veil. You can do the same despite your problems.”

I sighed, wishing it were that simple. We walked on to a narrow bend in the road. I had just made the obligatory left turn, when Koharig pulled back.

“What is it?” I asked, surprised. I’d been fuming and daydreaming a little. She almost made me fall when she yanked on my arm like that. She pointed a shaky finger ahead at a dark figure loitering on the road.

“It is a Dir,” she whispered. “Let us go back to the fields. I do not feel like going to town if we must pass him.”

I stared curiously at the dark figure, feeling the chills running up and down my spine. Dir’an were bad. I’d never met any before, but heard all about them.

Their ancestors were the types who built enormous stone altars and offered babies to their dragon god. They ate the remains. It’s said they never got out of the habit. They are horrible to my kind. We do not fight them as our ancestors once did. We have learned to fear them. There are ten times as many of them as there are of us. And nobody doubts that they would like to get rid of us altogether.

I felt every muscle in my body tense as I looked at the man. He’d already seen us. We couldn’t turn and run away without causing a fuss. “Let us just go through,” I whispered to Koharig. “If he tries to hurt us, Sarkis can always use his sword on him.”

I admit, for the first time in my life, I longed for a veil exactly like Koharig. As we drew closer to the man, I noted very definite signs that he was a Dir – the dark robes, the clean-shaven face, and the light eyes. The man stopped and watched us come. I held my breath and clutched Koharig’s arm. Behind us, I heard Sarkis draw his sword with a swish and knew he now carried it in hand. It was no comfort, because we all knew that if Sarkis killed the Dir, we risked condemning ourselves and all our families and animals to death.

“Greetings,” the man called out in a soft voice, just as we came astride his position.

I looked at Koharig, but didn’t know what to do except stop. Beneath my frozen expression, I hoped that my ugliness would turn his stomach so badly that he would tumble away harmlessly into the bushes.

“Greetings,” I returned in a dull flat voice. I studied the man. He seemed to be many years older than Koharig and I, but I was never good at guessing ages.

“Do you know of any farms hereabouts where strangers might be welcome?” The man flashed a smile at me, folding his hands politely under his chin.

“No.” Koharig said in a numb voice, and then she gathered her confidence about her. I saw her shoulders raise and her voice became louder. She grabbed my arm and dragged me back a little. “The farms hereabouts are small. We have large families, no room for strangers. If you go in that direction,” she pointed toward town, “you might find others of your kind.” She then added with resentment showing in her voice. “Heaven only knows how large their homes are and heavy-laden their tables.”

I let her pull me halfway down the road, back towards home, but something nagged in the back of my head. The man had done nothing to harm us, nor did he threaten in any way.

“Koharig, you go on home,” I whispered in her ear before going back to the man. I heard her gasp behind me, and she followed, worrying about me. The man hadn’t moved a muscle, though we’d abandoned him.

“You are welcome in my home. It is not too small.” I bowed my head at him and waited. I was not without the expectation that he would spit in the air at me or throw a shoe at Koharig where she lingered a few steps behind me.

The man smiled. Once more, I was struck by how bright his smile seemed. He said nothing at all until after we parted company with Koharig at her house and continued home. He then asked for my name.

I flashed a surprised look at him and he raised his hands with an amused smile. I wondered why he wasn’t afraid of my face. That look I gave him should have sent him back a few steps, not smiling.

“Ardimis,” I answered. I frowned, waiting for the annoying comments about my being named after a goddess. I got that a lot; people thought they were funny.

He merely extended his smile and bowed slightly to honor my name. I don’t know if that bow was meant for me or for the old goddess herself. Somehow, I doubted the latter, since the Dir’an worshiped different gods than our own. I didn’t ask his name and he did not offer it. We walked together up to the house where my father met us at the door.

Father’s eyes widened, but he made no attempts to grab sharp pointy weapons to chase the man away with. He instead bent down on a knee to remove our visitor’s shoes himself. I stepped to the side, alarmed by the humble gesture. I shot another glance at the man, but his face was blankly unaware of the special treatment. He merely thanked Father for the hospitality.

That night, the Dir joined us for dinner and then retired to the guest room usually reserved for my grandfather when he visits. Again I was shocked by the honor bestowed on a person of his type.

I went to bed that night with an uneasy heart. I tried to ask my father what he thought he was doing putting himself out like this. My father patted me on the head and suggested that I go off to bed like a good girl, and that I shouldn’t meddle with men’s business.

I rolled over hours later and looked out my window. The dawn was turning pink and yellow outside, it was early morning. I sprang out of bed with a resolve born out of too many hours spent tossing and turning.

I got dressed and then climbed out the window. I knew I couldn’t speak to the Dir with father right there. Nobody spoke over the dinner table last night; father wouldn’t allow it, and the Dir politely made no attempts. I figured it would be the same this morning.

I raced through the short vegetable field near the house and ran out to the road. There was a large thousand-year-old tree out there I could hide behind and wait for the Dir to come close enough to hail.

I sat down and picked grass, making little nests, figuring it would be a long wait. I was shocked when, what seemed like minutes later, a pair of sandaled feet appeared in front of me.

“What are you doing, little one?” The Dir leaned over examining my bird nests, a smile crossing his face when he saw the round pebbles I’d imaginatively placed in the one.

“Never mind that.” I slapped the nests to pieces and stood up. I looked the man in his shifty light eyes. I hoped I looked my ugliest, because I truly felt anger burning through me. Something was going on behind my back, and I didn’t like it.

“You came here to meet my father,” I said this with conviction born of a sudden realization. That would explain why my father had accepted him with so much grace. I studied him narrowly, not understanding why my father would arrange a visit from a Dir.

“More or less,” the man answered gently. He looked down past me at the torn nests, his face growing sad. “Your father and I have met before. We have a mutual understanding.”

I stepped back, bumping against the rippled bark of the tree. My first reaction was the fear that this understanding between him and my father concerned me. The Dir was a fine looking man, regardless his race, but I felt too young. And besides, there was the matter of my face that stood in the way.

The Dir was silent, as if he recognized some of the fluster going through me. I sneaked a glance and saw him smiling in amusement. No doubt, he thought I was pathetic. Somebody as ugly as a hag would have to have a ridiculously high opinion of herself to suppose every man she met, even Dir’an, were possible matches.

“My name is Maljan,” the man said quietly. “I am here to help you and as many of the other families as best as I can.”

“What?” I searched his face, baffled as to what he meant.

He looked down, his face coloring. At first, I thought it was embarrassment, but now I believe it was anger and shame. “There are some who blame all their problems on the people they do not know. They have been talking behind doors and shouting until their senses have all fled.”

“I don’t understand…” I interrupted him. I thought I knew what he was getting at, but I was giving him every chance possible to tell me something different. I almost preferred the imagined match with somebody like him, when compared to the fearful probabilities rushing through my mind.

“Simply put, we must take you and the others of your kind away and out of this country. If you do not go now, you might be killed during an uprising that is sure to happen. I’ve seen it before.”

I stared up at him, forgetting my face and everything else. Before my mind flashed images of my homeland. Yes, not everything was good. There was plenty of bitter mixed in with the sweetness, but foremost in my mind was the fear that elsewhere there would be no sweetness at all. Here in the homeland, I lived on the same land my ancestors did. I could take pride in that. Only hold my hands out, and I could touch the same air they breathed so many years ago. I gulped at the rush of pain and misery coursing through me and looked hard at the Dir.

“How dare you?” I hissed, pretending that this was a trick. “You are just like them. You just want our land without the trouble.” I stuck a finger out at him, knowing it was very rude and hoping he noticed. “This is OUR homeland, not yours. You came afterward. And your people brought misery. You would take our farms and our blessed mountains and turn them all into a piece of land to use in your numberless wars.”

“Ardimis…”

“Don’t call me by name.” By this point, I was reaching the peak of ultimate ,and I didn’t care how irrational I sounded. “I’m not going anywhere. I don’t care if your kind slaughters me and burns me as a sacrifice and eats me…”

I stopped right there because I noticed the turn of his face. Not guilt but shock and then amusement. Suddenly, I felt very silly and turned around, facing the tree. I counted ridges in the bark to settle my emotions. One, two, three…

“I do not deny that my ancestors came here only because your country stood between us and an enemy. That is true. And I do not deny the many horrible things that they did. And there is the truth that people even today have evil things in mind when it concerns your kind. But the truth is that some people change.”

I stopped counting ridges and listened.

“My greatest grandfather came here in conquest. But everything changed after he breathed the air, walked the mountain ways and dwelt with the people. He taught his children that the only differences in people are the things they believe in and do. What they look like or how they dress shouldn’t matter. And it didn’t matter to him. So every one of his descendants down to myself have taken his words to heart, and we try very hard to make peace between our peoples. And we are not alone. Many of our friends and companions feel the same way, but they do not dare speak up. They will help you escape – secretly.”

I sucked in my breath, thinking about my face. I felt it was only proof that people should not look at people funny just because of the way they looked. I looked perfectly hideous right now to him, but I knew that wasn’t the real me. Had I really looked at him and his kind that way?

“Maljan!” The call came from the house. I turned my head and could see my father in his white robes standing there, waving a hand at us. He didn’t see me just yet, or else I imagine he’d be doing more than just waving. I stepped closer to the tree and looked up at Maljan. He stood back and tucked his hands in his sleeves while waiting. His face seemed kind and concerned.

“I’m sorry…” I mumbled, remembering my manners. “I didn’t mean to ruin your morning. Please don’t let it be a reflection on my father. He would not have permitted me to accost you like this.”

Maljan smiled and looked down at the shredded birds’ nests. “I seem to recall the opposite. I might have walked past without you knowing. My curiosity overcame me, as well as…” He stopped and simply smiled at the nests, his face saddening.

I stubbed my bare toe in the dirt and crossed my arms. “So, you came here to tell my father when to leave or were you going to take us away yourself?” I flushed, hoping that he didn’t hear those last few words the way they suddenly sounded to me.

“I came to leave word, yes…” Maljan stubbed the dirt at his feet as well. And then for no apparent reason he added, “My home is quite large and had many high walls around the grounds and gardens. My mother called it paradise when my father brought her there.”

“Oh.” I flushed and looked down at the ground. I knew I was being silly by making guesses at what he meant. He was just making small talk. “Your house is nearby then?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded a bit uncertain. I glanced up and realized he was looking closely at me, as if trying to gauge my reaction. “It is here in the country at least. But it is safer than any other house… because of the walls, my servants, my good name, and wealth…”

That of course sounded quite a bit like a hint to me. I glanced toward the house and saw my father approaching. This time I was sure he’d seen me. He had a dark cloud on his face, and he was stomping.

I looked back at Maljan and suddenly realized that I might not see him again. At least, time felt very short and paper thin. “I do not want to leave my country. Would you take my family and me into your home?” It was embarrassingly direct, but there was no time to be polite and vague.

Maljan’s face brightened and he tried hard to hold his smile back. “But my mother will not accept another family in the home, unless it was my wife’s family.”

“That’s what I meant.” I raised my chin and then added in a hard forced tone. “I know I’m not very pretty and am the wrong kind – but you said yourself…”

“Shh.” He kissed his hand and bowed his head over it in my direction. “I shall have the prettiest wife in the country.”

My father caught up to us finally and banished any awkwardness that might have otherwise happened. He looked at Maljan with a raised eyebrow and Maljan tucked his hands in his sleeves and tried to look innocent. I was the one who told my father that we were not going anywhere, and that my husband would protect us. My face turned red as I said this, because I knew that Maljan was looking at me again with that glowing look.

My father looked annoyed and relieved at the same time, though he complained about moving to the other side of the country and up into the mountains. He knew as well as I did that wasn’t as bad as going someplace where people didn’t know your history or even care.

Koharig left before my marriage. She and her new husband turned their land and all their belongings into gold and fled when everyone else did. I’ll never forget the turn of her face when I told her. When she looked at Maljan, I knew she only saw him as a Dir’an and the reason why the world was so bad. She told me the day she left that she would never forget. That was all she said, but I have a feeling she was thinking about the Dir’an as she said that. If she could return someday at the head of an army, I’m sure my friend would have done that.

Now me – I don’t know if I still have a curse on my face. After Maljan came around and courted me so much, I grew to believe that the face I saw in my room when I was alone was the same that he saw.

Whether my face had changed or not, I was with somebody who didn’t care. I had a feeling that even if my hair really looked like something covered with lye and my face pockmarked, he’d still follow me with his eyes when I entered the room.

There is one thing which happened which will evermore stick in my head. This was several years later, and I was sitting down in our gardens, watching my first born daughter play with Maljan’s hunting dogs. Those mighty giants worshipped the ground she walked on and let her do whatever she wanted to them. Right now, she had wrapped a veil around Tiart’s head and a ring of flowers bedecked Hermes’s forehead.

Diana, as she was my namesake in a roundabout way, looked simply lovely. Her black hair hung like a silky veil over her shoulders and her face was as fresh and faultless as a lily.

I sensed Maljan coming out of the house to join me and I waved my hand for him to hurry. “She is beautiful, isn’t she?”

Maljan brushed a kiss on the top of my head and said she was the perfect image of her beautiful mother.

All right, now that I typed that out, I feel remarkably petty. My looks don’t matter to me one whit. I already made my point that I don’t even think about them most of the time. But I never once mentioned the curse to my husband, nor have I talked about my looks overmuch. He wasn’t comforting me, by any means. I believe he meant it – that he saw me that way. If there was such a thing as a curse placed on my head, I believed it had cracked and fell away.

2 Responses to “She Ugly”

  1. Pat Wakeley says:

    She Ugly is an exquisite story, a small gem.

  2. Katie Karian says:

    Thanks Pat, I’m glad you enjoyed it. :)

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