A Free Novelette
by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
This story is one of my favorites. It originally was published in Interzone magazine in Great Britain and was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Association Award for short fiction. It’s also available in my print collection from Juxta Publishing entitled I LOVED THY CREATION.
It explores the nature of beauty, truth and magic.
Read a Sample
THE WHITE DOG
Beauty and the Beast was the first story Mother ever read to me. I have read it myself a myriad times in a variety of forms and seen countless dramatic renditions of it. At each telling or showing or reading, I have felt, for a moment, a sense of contentment. That is, until I fathomed that this was a fairy tale and had nothing whatever to do with me. Oh, it’s not just that it’s a fairy tale—everything is a fairy tale from my vantage point—it’s that the Beast is a man and I am a woman.
What difference? Merely this: An ugly man may be saved by character; even the most hideous of men, as the fairy tale illustrates, can be loved for kindness and humor and a host of other qualities that fall neatly into a package labeled ‘inner beauty.’ But an ugly woman … well, I quickly learned that by no combination of graces or talents or virtues can she be considered lovely.
Humorists make a tired point of it:
“I’ve fixed you up with a date,” says the sit-comedian.
“Oh?” responds the object of his largesse. “What’s she like?”
“She has a great personality,” he is assured.
Whereupon the charm-challenged moron moans tragically, “Oh, God! She’s a bow-wow!”
The media assure us that the corollary is also true—a man will tolerate any amount of inanity and selfishness to adorn himself with Beauty; all stupidity can be forgiven it. In the female of the species, beauty can redeem a lack of character, but no amount of character can redeem a lack of good looks.
This is not to say that Gorgons don’t have friends, for there is a certain type of male who will befriend the charmless female for no other reason that, early in life, she seems almost ‘guylike’ in her gracelessness. Later, of course, he will abandon her, lest someone get the idea that they are an ‘item,’ but by this time, she will be much sought after by other, more attractive young women for the simple reason that they look good in comparison.
I’ve always thought the jealous Aphrodite was a fool not to have made Medusa her bosom buddy. How much simpler to have given the feckless Paris the choice between herself and the Gorgon—she’d have had the apple and the guy. Anyone stupid enough to even notice Medusa would have ended up as an ornamental coat rack in the goddess’s front hall.
Am I comparing myself to Medusa? Yes, though I flatter myself that the comparison is favorable. After all, she turned men to stone for all eternity. My personal best is only five seconds.
Let me make it clear that I am not homely. (Now, there’s a word! So old-world, so comfortable-sounding—as if the woman in question were a favored but dilapidated love seat.) Nor am I unattractive, nor ugly. I am nothing short of grotesque. Hideous. I enter a room and conversations cease, heads turn and quickly return. Men turn to stone.
I was four, I think, when I became aware of this. My mother’s and father’s eyes had that myopia that is peculiar to parents, but in the eyes of strangers, teachers and family friends, I saw distress, veiled revulsion, and pity. In the eyes of other little girls lurked something like horror, while boys peeked at me with speculative amusement. I was slow to understand this, until I came to realize how different my mirror image was from theirs. They had glossy, colorful hair, and eyes of brown or blue or gray. Their cheeks were rosy, their lips pink, their faces a balance of normal human features.
I am shrunken, and colorless, as if water runs in my veins instead of blood. My flesh is like rice paper, its fine mesh of veins clearly visible, and my hair—if that really is the word for such an anarchistic mop—has all the vibrancy of cellophane. One of my young faux-friends referred to me once as the ‘visible girl.’ It stuck.
Oh, and my eyes—how can I possibly describe them? They are not gray or hazel or even albino white, but are as devoid of color as a glass of water. “Jesus Lord!” exclaimed my friend of the ‘visible girl’ epithet, “you’ve got puries!” “Oooo-ee-ee-ooh,” school mates intoned when they passed me in the hall. “Spooky,” the girls called me, and, “Ghost.” The boys were worse: “Pasty-face” and “Slug” were two of their less innovative offerings. When I was about nine I realized that I looked, more or less, like the archetypal Whitley Streiber alien. I had by then lost count of how many Roswell jokes I’d been the butt of.
Fortunately, parents’ eyes are calibrated differently than the rest of mankind’s. I was my mother and father’s little Moonbeam. Mother could gaze at my alien features and tell me I was beautiful. I swear to this day, she meant it.
I believe that’s where I first got the idea that I could affect the way people saw me. Yes, my parents perceived me through a filter of love and pity, but I also provided a filter—the desperation with which I needed and desired their love and approval. Desperation demanded that I perform for them, that I be their happy little Moonbeam, an ethereal will-o-the-wisp. Not quite understanding the nature of parental love, I believed that I won it by being as engaging as I was grotesque. That belief instilled in me the confidence I needed to win the regard of others who were not so impossibly blinded. Pity, sympathy—call it what you will—I learned, over the years, to milk human kindness for all it was worth.
I’m not bitter about that. Far from it. While I undoubtedly brought out the worst in those disposed toward cruelty, I brought out the best in anyone with even an ounce of compassion. I suppose in an abstract way, you could say I helped make them better human beings.
Of course, there are always those disinclined to kindness. They were harder to deal with. Their regard could wound; their words could draw blood. Such a one was Bobby Bane (an ironic and appropriate name, if ever there was one). If there was one bona fide bully in our tiny neighborhood, it was Bobby, and he established himself as such from the moment his family moved in.
I heard rumor of him before we met. He had beaten up my friend Robin—who was twice my size—and taken away her bike and the popsicle her mother had given her as an afternoon snack. I was impressed. Robin was my own personal bully. So often did she terrorize me—leveling me with a push and taking whatever toy I happened to be playing with—that I now lay down on the sidewalk the moment I saw her coming. I considered Robin my friend solely by virtue of the fact that she did not call me names.
Robin was not the only child Bobby Bane flattened. Soon, neighborhood Moms were in turmoil. They confronted Bobby’s mother without satisfaction.
“Why,” I asked my own mother, “is Bobby so mean?”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “I suspect he’s very lonely. His family’s moved twice in the last year. He doesn’t have any friends.”
That, I thought, was perfectly understandable, and unlikely to change any time soon.