Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Curse by Maria Hummer

Read by Ann-Marie Taaffe
If you kiss me, I said to him, I become beautiful. I swear it.

He looked at me across the bar table. Hundreds of men I’ve told this, hundreds of old, young, fat, skinny, brave, hopeless men, and he was the first to look me in the eye and not say a thing. His eyes didn’t linger on the warts in the corners of my mouth, the sores on my cheeks and my neck, the dull and thinning hair I tried to hide under wide-brimmed hats.

What do you mean? he asked.

My heart sped. I’d never gotten this far. I scrambled through my purse for a picture taken of me on my sixteenth birthday, carried with me these seven years since. I passed him the picture, proof that my hair once shone like honey on toast, that my lips had sparkled like freshly washed strawberries, all on their own, without the aid of makeup. Now I have a closetful of cosmetics and spend hours each morning trying in vain to make my appearance less shocking.

This is you? he asked.

I braced myself for laughter, for horror, for embarrassment. Some reaction. But he just looked at me.



Yes, I said.

And this is you, he said pointing at me across the table.

Yes.

And you prefer this? He held up the picture.

My face burned. I snatched the picture back and put it in my purse. I started to leave.

Hey, he said. I was just asking. I was just making sure I got the story straight. This is what you want?

I nodded.

And you think I can help you? he asked.

I nodded.

Okay, he said.

He leaned across the table. My heart split in two and released a new thing, a flame of hope, that stole all heat from my hands and made them tingle. I knew I should shut my eyes but I didn’t do it fast enough and I saw his lips, pink and flowered, reach for the dry folds of my own. His peck made a little noise like the sound of air being quietly released from a balloon.

He sat back in his chair and looked at me. Is it working? I asked. My words were soft, almost silent, scrambling to get out of my tight throat and be heard.

I don’t know, he said. Maybe.

I felt my face with my anxious hands but everything was still rough, puckered, hairy.

Maybe it takes a minute, he said.

I sat with him for a long time, lamenting that no miracle had occurred, but while he listened to me speak I realized I was wrong because, miraculously, he was still there.

*

I decided I’d gotten it wrong. I’d misunderstood the witch who cursed me. She hadn’t said I needed to be kissed; she’d said I needed to fall in love. I had long believed you couldn’t have one without the other but things change.

So we went for walks in the city, he and I. We walked in the rain and we walked in the night, the silvery streetlamps stirring romance in our hearts. We held hands. We talked about dreams.

We were in a park when it happened. We climbed a tree and faced each other in its branches and I could feel him pouring his eyes into mine. He grabbed me by the coat pockets and gasped, I love you, I just love you.

My heart opened again – it was happening at last – as a breeze stirred between us, pulling brittle leaves from the branches. The leaves brushed my shoulders and cheeks as if to give me their own expired youth.

I touched my face.

*

We had our first argument that day. I accused him of not being truthful. If he’d meant what he said I wouldn’t still be ugly.

But I did mean it, he said. I love you and I mean it.

You just said it because you thought it would make me beautiful, I said.

No, he said.

He held me in his arms and we were quiet for a very long time.

I must have gotten it wrong, I said.

*

My wedding day, I decided. The old witch must have told me my wedding day would make me beautiful. I’d thought she said love, but I used to think you couldn’t have one without the other. It was an easy mistake to make.

It meant I had to be patient for a few more years before he felt he could ask, and then another year waiting for the day. But it would be worth it.

On the morning of my wedding I paced from mirror to mirror in my snow drop gown, looking for signs of change. I thought maybe my skin looked softer, my eyes brighter, but the changes weren’t coming fast and when I walked down the aisle I was still pockmarked and warted and his relatives couldn’t help but avert their eyes.

I faced my new husband. He was handsome with expensive tailoring and love. He took my hands in his and kissed my dry lips and we were married, the kiss said so, the ring said so, and although I smiled a lot that day I felt an inner sinking of my heart because I knew nothing had changed.

*

That night I cried in his arms.

The old witch lied to me, I said.

It’s okay, he said. He patted my stringy hair.

It’s not, I said. You married me because you thought it would make me beautiful.

He led me from our bed. He took me to the mirror and stood with his naked belly to my hairy back. He threaded his smooth arms through mine and rested his shapely hands on my sagging stomach. His eyes met mine in the mirror.

You are beautiful, he said. He pressed his lips to my neck.

I stood there a moment. Then I slid from his embrace and left the room.

*

I spent my days combing my memory for what the witch had said. I’d gone into her backyard, I’d picked her flowers, the ones she was growing for a competition. I didn’t know, I thought they were just flowers. And she caught me, and she cursed me, and said the spell would only be released by…

And then nothing. Just radio fuzz.

I spent more money on fancier cosmetics, designer clothes. They made little difference. My husband would catch me staring into mirrors, eyes drooped and tired.

Come on, he’d say and gently try to lead me away.

Sometimes I followed him. Most times I didn’t.

Very quickly our marriage lost its laughter. I blamed the curse. I’d sit in my room, nursing and nursing this blame until I felt it in every shriveled pore. My fault, my fault.

My husband and I stopped talking as much. Then we didn’t talk at all. One night at dinner I realized he couldn’t even look at me anymore; his neck was constantly curved down, like a dying flower. I began to cry. Fat drops landed on my fresh steak. The meat sizzled with my despair.

You don’t love me, I said. I’ll never be beautiful. Why don’t you just leave?

He chewed his steak. I had overcooked it, it was tough, and he chewed for a very long time. Then he swallowed and spoke.

You’re right, he said.

We finished our meal. He left the table silently and I remained. I stared at my hands, two tight withered fists like a pair of bad apples. I heard noises, like the opening and shutting of drawers. I knew I should go to my husband but I couldn’t move. I just sat there loosening and tightening my hands, the hands that plucked the flowers.

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