Once upon a time there was an ugly girl named Ylgu. According to the standards of her time and place, every part of her was the wrong color, size, shape, proportion, texture, or density. The one part of her that was exactly right, however, was her heart: it was much larger than normal, and that was very good.
Ylgu’s mother was a lady-in-waiting at the local castle, until she was found kissing the kennel master. They were both discharged from their duties, and from the grace and good favor of the royal family. They shrugged, married, started a veterinary clinic, had one child, and died. Ylgu therefore at a tender age became in one stroke an orphan and a veterinarian and a business owner. But through it all her heart was light, and she shouldered her burden with calm wisdom and a great love for her patients. Many young men in the village noted her good qualities, but being creatures of their time and place, they just couldn’t look past her ugliness. As a result, her friends were getting married in droves, while she was staying single drovelessly. She thought it would be nice to be married, remembering her parents’ sweet love for one another and their tender care of her when she was younger. But the years rolled on, and she was fast approaching that age (26) at which young maids of that time and place became old maids, and took up taxidermy.
One day she was walking down the main street of her village when a stag came limping down the lane. A broken arrow was lodged in its right front leg. Gently, speaking kind and reassuring words, Ylgu led it into her shop. She had it lie down, and when it was calm, she pulled the arrow from its leg. She bound the wound, taking the same care she would with the animal of a paying customer, of which at the moment she had none. (It was a slow week.) Tears welled in the stag’s eyes at the pain, but it calmly accepted her ministrations without flinching. She felt such pity on the animal, that she kissed it on the nose. Instantly it turned into a handsome young prince with a bandaged arm.
“You have released me from the wicked spell!” the prince cried. “Only the kiss of a beautiful maiden could undo the evil witch’s black magic.” He started to pace back and forth as he spoke. “I was once a dashing young prince, proud, noble, royal, strong, clever, charming, and altogether comely. Maidens would fight over me, although I gave my heart to none, seeking only the loveliest of them all. But how my parents will rejoice to find that I, the apple of their eye, have been restored to my proper self! Come, be my princess, and one day you shall rule as a mighty queen over my father’s kingdom!”
He turned to look at her, and considered her long. Ylgu wasn’t quite sure what to do or say. She was of course of noble blood, but wasn’t sure she wanted to be a queen, especially of such a vain prince.
“You’re not a lovely maiden at all,” he said. “Every part of you is the wrong color, size, shape, proportion, texture, or density. I rescind my recent offer. Will this be enough for your services?” He offered her a bag of gold that was worth far more than the cost of the care he had received. She accepted it, and showed him to the door.
After the brash young prince had gone on his way, Ylgu sat down and cried. She knew she was foolish, because she wouldn’t want to be married to such a stuck-up jerk. But still she felt sorry for herself, and I’m not going to take that from her.
Some months later, a porcupine with a gash along its neck came into her shop (she had carelessly left the door ajar). It found her sitting by the fire, and came and prodded her with its nose, making angry grunting noises. She saw its wound, and went and got her suture kit. She numbed the wound with a special potion, and stitched it closed in the way that she had seen her father do. The whole while the porcupine grunted and stamped its paws and acted irritable, even though Ylgu could tell from its lack of flinching that the surgery did not cause it pain. When she was done she got it some food (Purina Porcupine Chow, or the nearest equivalent in that time and place). It ate greedily, occasionally baring its fangs (well, incisors) if she got too close. Ylgu laughed, and when it was done eating, she bent down and kissed it on the nose.
Instantly it turned into a handsome young prince with a bandaged neck. “You have undone the evil spell, and I suppose I should be grateful,” he said. “I vowed to marry the maid who set me free, and make her my queen, even if she be, well, ugly. I am a man of my word, so I shall take you as my bride, even though every part of you is the wrong color, size, shape, proportion, texture, or density.”
“No thanks,” she said. “I want a happy marriage, and you’re too – well – prickly.”
“Are you turning down the chance to be a queen?”
“Yes,” Ylgu said. “Yes, I am. I hope you have a long and happy life. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be long.”
“Fine,” said the prince. “Will this be enough for your services?” He offered her a coin worth much less than the care he had received. She accepted it, and showed him to the door.
After the prickly young prince had gone on his way, Ylgu sat down and laughed. She knew she was wise, because she wouldn’t want to be married to such a stuck-up jerk. But still she felt sorry for herself, and I’m not going to take that from her.
Again some months later, she was standing in her doorway when a fox came running through the door.
“Quick, close the door!” he said.
Intrigued, she closed the door.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“The hounds! Can’t you hear them?”
She could not, but did not argue. “Won’t they know you’ve come in here?” she asked.
“You are wise,” said the fox. “Have you any string?” Ylgu produced a length of twine. “Here, tie this to it, and drag it down the street. Then throw it into the bushes.” At that, he pulled off his fur as if it were an overcoat, and handed it to Ylgu, who tied the string to it and took off running. Before she got to the end of the block, she could hear the hounds baying.
When she got back to her shop, the fox was trembling and shivering. “Thank you!” he said. “You are very kind.” Then, “Could you make a fire?” he asked.
It was a hot August day, but Ylgu could see that the fox was cold without his fur, so she made a fire. As soon as it was really going, the fox leapt into the flames and buried himself in the coals.
“My dear fox! What have you done!” she cried. She feared he would burn to death, but in a short while he crawled out of the fire, shook himself free of sparks and coals, and stood in the firelight in a brand-new coat of gleaming fur.
“Any holes or anything?” asked the fox.
“It’s beautiful!” said Ylgu. “But you’re a fox, and foxes are beautiful animals.”
“You are kind,” said the fox, and he would have blushed, but foxes can’t blush, at least when they have fur.
“Can I get you something to eat?” Ylgu asked.
“That would be lovely!” said the fox, so they shared a meal at her tiny table.
“You have been most kind, wise maiden,” said the fox, “and I would like to reward you for your charity. I can, through my magic, grant you your heart’s one desire, if you but name it. But I can only grant one wish, so consider well.”
Ylgu furrowed her brows. She thought and thought, but couldn’t decide which one thing she wanted most.
“I can see you are having a hard time,” said the fox. Ylgu nodded. “Perhaps there are a lot of things in your mind, and you’re not sure which you want the most?” Ylgu nodded. “Well, tell me all of them, and perhaps I can help you choose.”
So Ylgu was surprised to find herself pouring out her heart to a fox she had just met, although he was wise and kind. When she had finished, he said, “It sounds to me that you want a happy marriage like your parents had, but if you wish for a husband, you fear he will despise you for your looks, and if you wish for beauty, you fear that won’t be enough to attract the kind of man you could be happy with.”
“You’re very kind and wise,” Ylgu said.
“That’s as may be,” said the fox, “but I think I know a little of what you are feeling. I was a prince, but was turned to a fox by an evil magician. For years I carried anger and shame in my heart, but in time I came to see it as a blessing. For I was an awkward and ugly prince, and no young princess would accept my marriage proposal.”
“But you’re so wise and kind!” Ylgu said.
“That’s as may be,” said the fox, “but whatever good qualities I may have had, it wasn’t enough.”
“Tell me about it,” Ylgu thought, but out loud she said, “Well, if I were a princess, I’d marry you, no matter how ugly you were.”
“Then I think I can grant your wish and solve both our problems,” said the fox. “If you will but kiss my nose, we can be wed, and I will take you to my magic underground palace.” For he could see that she was both kind and wise.
She could see that he was both wise and kind, and seeing as they were both ugly and unable to find a suitable mate, the whole thing seemed like a great idea. Ylgu bent down and kissed his nose. Instantly she turned into a fox.
“Not quite what I was expecting,” she said.
“It grows on you,” said the fox. And he nipped her on the chin, which is vulpine for “I love you.”
Ylgu nipped him back, saying, “So let’s see this underground palace of yours.”
“Follow me,” said the fox. And she did.
Copyright © 2016 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.