Hmmm … I think you are not listening to me.
Let me explain. I have these students, and they are FABULOUS. Just read this story by Bronwyn Palmer, and you will see.
Bronwyn is currently studying counselling part-time at USQ and hopes to have a degree before she is sixty. She is regretting choosing Creative Writing as an elective because she now has a strong desire to throw in her counselling studies and pursue an Arts degree instead. Her previous writing tuition consists of a Creative Writer’s Correspondence Course through James Cook University and she has also attained a Certificate in Professional Children’s Writing through the Australian College of Journalism.
Bronwyn has had several articles published on now-defunct website ViewsHound where she won first prize for her article ‘Doing Death Well’. In a previous life Bronwyn lived in the Northern Territory and wrote software training manuals. Her efforts to make the manuals as interesting and as funny as possible generally went unnoticed by her students.
Once, in a time when progeny were prized, a childless couple lived in a small and fertile village on the edge of the great forest. They felt the sting of the empty womb, and barren shame took up residency in their home. The woman kept her eyes lowered to avoid the smug and pitying looks thrown her way, and the man attacked his fields with angry force. One day, as he was feeding his pigs, he muttered, “Just one child is all I ask for. I’d be happy even if it looked like a pig!”
Soon after, to the couple’s great joy, the woman fell pregnant. However, their joy turned to horror when the child was born, for it had the ears and snout of a pig and trotters in place of hands. The man, in his bitterness, named the boy Hertz, which means my strife. The mother, although fearful and heart-broken, felt compassion for her son; so, privately, she called him her little Säugling, or suckling.
Hertz did not meet with much kindness during his growing years; the other villagers teased him and the only attention he received from his father was dismissal or blows. When the taunts were particularly cruel, or his father’s treatment extra harsh, Hertz would run to his mother and bury his tear-wet face in her lap. She would gently pull his long soft ears between her fingers and try to find the words that might bring relief to the pain and bewilderment he felt. “Oh, my little Säugling, life is hard, and people can be cruel,” she would whisper, “but ugly is as ugly does. You are beautiful in here…” and she would rest her hand over his heart. Somehow this helped, and Hertz’s heart stayed pure and his mind remained open to wonder and possibility.
Meanwhile, in a kingdom on the other side of the forest, there lived a princess named Alba. Alba was considered a very disobedient child because she had failed to inherit the requisite beauty and grace all princesses are supposed to have. One leg was shorter than the other, her teeth were crooked, she had a lazy eye, and she had the effrontery to be plump instead of dainty and slender. Life was not easy for Alba, for she was constantly reminded of how miserably she lived up to the Princess Ideal.
As Alba grew, her father quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that his kingdom would never be strengthened by an advantageous marriage. His solution was to simply ignore her. Alba’s mother, however, was made of sterner stuff. The Queen was very aware of the limited options available to an unmarried woman, so she sought all kinds of remedies and instituted a range of regimes in order to cure the princess of her ugliness. Alba was placed on a starvation diet; her leg was painfully stretched in a rack each day; she was trussed up in all kinds of vile-smelling wraps and fed atrocious potions—but she remained stubbornly unlovely.
Although Alba was the recipient of her father’s disinterest and her mother’s frustrated wrath, the servants in the palace pitied her and showed her kindness. The cook turned a blind eye when Alba stole delicacies from his kitchen, and as she grew more confident in his domain, he found the bright and curious child standing on a stool, spoon in hand, stirring the large pots of food that bubbled on the stove. Alba was eager to learn; her sharp curiosity and quick intelligence proved to be the right recipe for motivating the cook to share his culinary secrets. The head groom found himself teaching her all about horse handling, the gardener had all his green lore dug out of him, and the game-keeper instructed Alba in the finer arts of trapping. So, although Alba submitted patiently to her mother’s attempts to initiate her into all the glitter and glory of the court, she much preferred the more practical lessons of her retainers and the freedom she found in the castle grounds. Alba was constantly being scolded for the dirt under her fingernails and the state of her petticoats; however, the instruction she received from the servants of the household, and the books she devoured in her father’s library, gave her a sense of accomplishment that lessened the sting of her mother’s disdain and the not-so-subtle barbs of the glamorous courtiers.
Back in the village, Hertz too was growing. He learned to deflect the villagers’ insults with wit, and his body grew strong as he strove to make himself useful despite his piggish disabilities. When Hertz had grown to manhood, he decided it was time to seek his fortune, so he bid farewell to his relieved father and conflicted mother, and set off into the dark, green forest. As he wandered the dappled paths, he felt a growing sense of freedom. Here, in these shadows, was relief from scornful eyes. Every bend in the trail seemed to hold promise. He drank cool water from carefree brooks, plucked juice-full berries from generous bushes, and slept cradled in the elbows of trees. His hope rose with the sun each day—that is, until the supplies he carried ran out, and he approached an isolated cottage looking to earn some food. Hertz was forcefully brought back to reality by the fearful hostility he encountered there.
Around this time, on the other side of the forest, Alba heard tales of an old woman who lived in the woods and worked powerful magic. Perhaps she can make me beautiful, Alba thought, for although she was resigned to being unattractive, in her heart of hearts Alba wished to be at least passably pretty. So, she too, bravely set off into the dark, green forest. The path was difficult for her hobbled gait, and she recalled all the dark childhood stories of wolves and ogres as she moved through the shadows; but Alba had learned many skills from her servant friends and after she had armed herself with a sharpened staff and fashioned a sling from her much abused stockings, she felt more confident—that is, until she heard a strange squealing coming from a dense thicket further down the path. Heart pounding, she hefted her staff and crept as quietly as she could towards the shaking bushes. She cautiously pushed aside a branch and found herself staring into the pain-filled eyes of the most curious creature she had ever seen.
“Help me! My foot is caught in a trap!” Pain blurred Hertz’s vision, and his body trembled in his effort to remain still.
Alba shook off her astonishment and swiftly knelt to examine the trap. “You’re lucky, it’s fairly rudimentary; I don’t think it will have done any permanent damage.” She deftly released the mechanism and gently prised Hertz’s foot free. She eased off his battered boot and inspected the damage; then, without hesitation, lifted the hem of her skirt and ripped a length of cloth from her petticoat. “This should help,” she said, as she wound the makeshift bandage around the injury. “It will need proper treatment, but hopefully the old woman’s cottage is not far; she may have the right salves to put on it. Can you walk?”
Hertz, feeling befuddled by pain and the shock of seeing a woman’s bare legs, gave himself a mental shake; “I—I think so…” He gratefully accepted Alba’s help to stand and gingerly placed weight on his injured foot. The pain made his pink piggy snout turn white, and he felt himself toppling. Strong hands grabbed him and the next he knew his arm was hoisted over Alba’s shoulder and her arm was around his waist. Hertz was afraid he would swoon. Apart from his mother; no woman had ever touched him before.
The pair’s progress through the forest was slow, and by evening, Alba was exhausted from supporting Hertz’s weight. “We will have to stop for the night,” she said, and found a safe, dry clearing in which to camp. She eased Hertz down so that he was propped against a mossy log, and began to gather wood for a fire. Hertz lay back and watched her as she hobbled around. Her looks were homely to say the least, but her clothes and the warm cloak she wore spoke of great quality. The strange juxtaposition of her crooked body, fine clothes and practical aptitude sparked his curiosity.
Alba efficiently lit a fire and, in the fading light, inspected the bushes growing around the clearing. With a grunt of satisfaction, she plucked some leaves from one and ground them to a paste with two rocks. In a small wooden bowl she drew from her pouch, Alba mixed the paste with some water from a nearby stream and held it awkwardly to Hertz’s snout. “Here, it taste’s terrible, but it will help ease the pain.” Hertz, who had long avoided eating in front of others, snuffled up the mixture and drew back, painfully aware that his snout was covered in green residue. Alba took a fine linen handkerchief from her pocket and reached up to wipe Hertz’s snout, and at that moment, their eyes met.
Adversity is an uncertain teacher; some people resent her lessons and withdraw into themselves, feeling that life owes them for the pain they have suffered. Others dig deep and find strength they did not know they possessed. Both Alba and Hertz saw, in the eyes of the other, wisdom and compassion. They sat by the fire and talked far into the night, sharing their stories and realising that, at last, here was someone who understood. Eventually, they were all talked out, and sat leaning against each other, staring into the dancing flames until they fell asleep.
All manner of people enter the forest—villagers seeking lost livestock, knights and knaves hunting for sport, naughty schoolboys looking for adventure. When Hertz and Alba awoke the next morning, the sun was already high in the sky, and they blinked up into the faces of a small knot of such folk. There was much whispering and nudging of one another; the ragtag mob were ready to indulge in sport of a different kind. As Hertz and Alba clambered to their feet and gathered their belongings, the taunts began.
“Hey, what do they call you… Pig Face?”
“Ha ha ha! And her name must be Ugly Stump!”
“Ah, but aint love grand! You two are made for each other—both as ugly as sin!”
“Don’t let them breed though! Can you imagine? The horror! The horror!”
These cruel people followed Hertz and Alba hurling mockery and stones until they arrived at the old woman’s door. There, the couple huddled on the doorstep, trying to shield one another from the noisy rabble.
The old woman, hearing the uproar, wrenched her door open. “What’s all this ruckus?” she shrieked. One bright spark from the crowd called back, “Here’s Pig-face and Ugly-stump; they want you to give them a beautiful baby!”
“Yeah,” said another, “but not even your magic is strong enough to do that!” The mob roared with laughter as a tear rolled down Hertz’s face.
The old woman glared at the unruly throng and flicked her twisted fingers. “Away with you, you scallywags! You’ve no business here.”
“What, and miss all the sport? Never!” they yelled back. “Are you going to make us Old Woman?”
“I just might!”
The old woman straightened her crooked back and raised her weathered arms.
“Let earth and sky, wind and rain,
“nature wise, show what’s plain.
“Bring what’s concealed into the light;
“that which is true, bring into sight!”
With a crash of lightning, the crowd was transformed. They looked at each other in bewilderment and growing horror, then howled in fright at the ugliness they saw. In blind panic they ran in every direction. Hertz felt a strange tingling in his arms and looked down. He watched in amazement as the hard shell of his trotters cracked, splintered and fell away to reveal strong, tanned hands. He beamed with delight as he flexed his fingers and wiggled his thumbs. Alba stumbled and nearly lost her balance as her stumpy leg stretched and flexed. There were strange creaking and popping sounds as her hips aligned and her spine straightened. They looked eagerly at each other, but although Hertz no longer had a pig’s snout or ears, his nose still had a defiantly piggish snub to it, and his ears were still rather large; and although both Alba’s eyes now looked in the same direction, her teeth were still crooked, and she still lacked the dainty figure of a princess.
They turned to the old woman, their disappointment writ plain on their faces.
“Don’t look at me like that!” the old woman scolded.
“Old Woman, we are truly grateful,” said Alba, “but…”
“But nothing—look at each other again! Look properly!”
So they did as they were told. Looking deeply into the other’s eyes, they saw the love shining there. What a gift! To be known, and loved because you are known!
“The trials your imperfections brought you have taught you much; I don’t want you to forget those lessons. You are strong, you are wise, and you have each other,” the old woman said. “You need nothing more.”
Hertz tentatively reached for Alba’s hand and gasped with wonder at the touch of it. He ran his thumb over the small calluses on her palm and exclaimed with surprise at the hard satin of her fingernails. He reached up, slid a lock of her hair through his fingers and wept. Alba, her face flushed and eyes glistening with answering tears, snatched up Hertz’s hand and planted a hearty kiss on his palm, then laughed at his sharp intake of breath.
“Alright, that’s enough you two!” The old woman waved her hand, “Be off with you! I’ve got better things to do with my time that watch your love-making.”
Hertz and Alba linked hands, thanked the old woman and turned their steps towards Alba’s home.
Alba’s parents were so relieved to learn that their only child was alive. It tempered their dissatisfaction at her choice of a husband, and, although they would have preferred a better match, they privately acknowledged that she probably wouldn’t find another. The servants listened open-mouthed to Alba’s story and rejoiced at her happiness. They were buoyed by Hertz and Alba’s tales of misfortune turned to joy, and secretly hoped for the same.
Hertz struggled, at first, to fit into life at court: it seemed that there would be a repeat of the same treatment he had received from the people of his village. One day, a courtier, with a handful of cronies at his back tried to pick a quarrel with Hertz.
“I’ve been told that you said you consider me a thick-headed boor!” the courtier accused.
Hertz smiled gently and replied, “Why no! I keep my thoughts to myself.” Then he bowed and walked away, leaving the gentleman with a puzzled frown, and the gentlemen’s friends laughing with appreciation. Thus his gentle wit slowly won him friends, and his obvious devotion to Alba ensured that the servants were fiercely loyal to him. In all this, Hertz did not forget his parents, and although he did not feel he owed his father anything, for his mother’s sake, he ensured that they lived comfortably.
As Alba’s father came to know Hertz, he discovered a natural cunning and diplomacy in him and decided that he would train Hertz in affairs of state. However, here Hertz dug his heels in and refused to be part of it unless Alba was included. They both proved to be apt pupils, and worked so well together that when the King became frail, he did not hesitate to pass the reins of the kingdom to his ugly daughter and her equally ugly husband.
This unlikely pair established shrewd trade agreements with other kingdoms and built strong diplomatic ties so that their rule was one of peace and prosperity. Their wisdom and compassion won them the love of their people; to the point where, when visitors to the kingdom commented on their rulers’ ugliness, the people would hotly assert otherwise. For they had discovered the beauty that lay within the hearts of their sovereigns; and that kind of beauty never fades.