Wisteria (Part I)

Here is a fairy tale that I wrote last year:

Wisteria or The Ugliest of Them All

by Amanda Von Hoffmann


There are two reasons parents leave their children in the woods:

  1. They cannot afford to keep them. While it would be kinder to smother the little ones in their sleep, or hold them underwater in the washtub until the bubbles stop, parents feel less like murderers when they abandon their progeny in the forest. They don’t have to witness their demise.
  2. The children are unwanted. Maybe they were born out of wedlock, maybe they are impossible to discipline, maybe they are deemed lacking either physically or mentally. Perhaps their parents are just afraid of them.

My father and stepmother are leaving me in the woods for the second reason. I am so ugly that they can no longer bear to look at me. I am so ugly that they fear I am evil. My ugliness must be a curse, retribution for past sin, the devil’s handiwork.

My ears look like I’ve been caught in a tug o’ war between two angry schoolmarms. My teeth are so turned and gapped that I cannot drink from a teacup without awful clacks and spills. My hair is coarse and orange, crackling with electricity, a sure mark of witchery.

My parents are right to fear me, although they do not know my secret. They do not know that at night I practice moving things with my mind. I have moved my father’s boots three hand spans closer to the fireplace.

My secret magic does not comfort me as they remove the blindfold from my eyes. I am surrounded by towering pines. My father hands me a satchel that contains one blanket, a flask of well water, a knife, a loaf of bread and a small wheel of cheese.

“Take care,” he says, but his words are hollow.

They do not say “goodbye” or even meet my eye before they walk away. Whether they are ashamed or they just do not want one last look at my ugly face, I cannot tell. Even though they do not love me, I want to follow them back to our home. But, I will my feet to stay rooted. They would only beat me and bind me to a tree were I to try. They will tell the village we had a picnic, and I wandered off on my own.

The first day, I see no reason to move from the place they left me. I eat a portion of cheese and bread, curl up in my blanket and listen to the wails of wild animals as I fall asleep. I think that maybe my father’s conscience will make him return for me the next day. He does not.

On the third day, I decide I should find a way to leave the forest. Perhaps I can return to the village and I’ll work for the apothecary whose his eyes are too milky to suffer from my ugliness. Perhaps I will find a new village where the mothers take pity on me.  I could sweep their floors, tend their livestock and serve to remind ungrateful daughters and sons how fortunate they are.

I set a path at random, pushing through brambles that rake my cheeks. I run out of water, and I fear that I have moved deeper into the forest instead of closer to civilization. I am lost.

In the distance, I hear rushing water. I follow the sound until I find a brook, whispering over white stones. My heart stops when I see a huge brown bear, fishing with his great clawed paws.

But he is more frightened than I am. He yelps and retreats a few feet. Then, he laughs. “Ugly girl, you have accomplished what no other creature in this forest can. You have scared the shit out of me! Come, join me for supper.”

I drink from the brook and eat the little fish Bear gives me. By the end of the meal, he decides to keep me for a pet.

“Climb onto my back,” he says. “I am tired of being the most frightening creature in the forest. I am glad to have found you.”

I live with Bear until winter arrives, sleeping curled against his furry side in his den, eating berries and raw fish. I grow taller, my hair lank and greasy. When other animals see me riding Bear, they shriek with fear. Beaver even fainted once. Bear says that they are terrified of my ugliness, and he feels better about himself.

“How did you get so ugly?” Bear asks me. “Did you practice in the river’s reflection?”

I shake my head. “It comes quite naturally.”

“What a gift,” he says. “All the creatures fear you.”

I do not believe his words, because I know that Bear is happy he isn’t as ugly as me. After all, he does not want to be the most feared in the forest.

When the frosts come, he falls asleep for too many days. I am hungry. I do not want to leave Bear. But, he is only using me for my ugliness, so I do not feel too guilty. Also, there is the stench. Bear farts in his sleep, filling the den with smells so powerful and wretched that I vomit. So, I leave Bear’s warm but noxious side.

I am not alone for long. One day, a gray wolf joins me.

“I have heard your voice at night,” she says. “I marvel that such a lovely voice can come from such an ugly mouth. Come sing to my pups that are born late this year.”

I am nervous as I follow her to the pack, afraid of the lean and hungry wolves we find gnawing at the carcass of an elk. However, the wolves seem to have no interest in ripping apart my scrawny bones. Gray Wolf leads me to her pups.

“This is Greedy, Whiner and Dumbass,” she introduces the three young wolves. Her eyes narrow as she glares at a mangy wolf sneaking off from the pack with an entire elk leg between his jaws. “Every year that bastard catches me and gets me with pups. I do not want to spend every year nursing his whelps and singing them lullabies. I want to be free.”

I live with Gray Wolf and her pack for a few months, singing her pups to sleep while she traipses the woods and howls at the moon. She brings me various birds and small creatures to eat. But I cannot stay. I love her pups as they wrestle and nip my arms with their sharp teeth, but I am not their mother. I do not like Gray Wolf. She is like my father and stepmother, desperate to abandon her own. She is using me for my pretty voice just as Bear used me for my ugliness.

I leave in early spring. Gray Wolf calls after me on the wind: “Bitch.”

I am lost in the woods for days, and I begin to think that I will die. Then, I tumble into a clearing and see the quaintest cottage, built with stones and logs, capped with a thatched roof, covered in wisteria.

I have wanted for human company for so long that I forget to be cautious. I pound on the lilac-colored door, but no one answers. It is unlocked, so I enter. No one is home, but the pantry is filled with jams and strange squat bottles filled with powders and rainbow liquids.

I sleep in the feathered bed, snatch eggs from the chickens and fry them over the fireplace, the first cooked food I have eaten in almost a year. After a few days, I am reckless enough to heat water and bathe in the copper washtub.

I no longer feel lost; I feel like I have come home to a place that is more mine than the dwelling I lived in with my father and stepmother. I begin to delude myself that the wisteria cottage belongs to me, believing that I have imagined this perfect place into existence.

I am wrong. When summer begins to burn more freckles onto my skin, the real owner of the wisteria cottage returns. She is a hunched old crone, and she is not pleased to find her lovely cottage occupied.

“Get out!” She forces me from the cottage with a blast of wind, her magic much stronger than mine. “How dare you eat my best sour pickles and bathe with my lavender soap! Be gone, ugliest child!”

But as she screams the last words, she sends her wisteria vines to wrap around my ankles, pull me to the ground and drag me back to the cottage.

“Do you think you can just leave without paying for the goods you’ve used, hideous one?” She strikes me with her bony knuckles. “You will pay for what you have taken. You will be my servant until you have repaid your debt.”

Stay tuned for Part II on Monday…