Sage Tyrtle

Too Ugly For a Dog to Eat: A Cento Fairy Tale

All lines in italics from The Fairy Books by Andrew Lang (public domain).

When you are six years old, you learn from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book that your cleft palate makes you hideous. You learn from his Red Fairy Book that your pudginess is appalling, and from the Pink Fairy Book that your lazy eye is repulsive.

And I want to go back to that Montessori classroom and sit next to you. You, whip-smart with a crooked smile. I want us to work together, ripping out the pages of every single Fairy Book. Cut out every sentence with the word beautiful. Every sentence with the word ugly. And we will create a new story. With safety scissors and paste.

On the top of a high mountain dwells an old woman, who has in her stables twelve horses, each one more beautiful than the other. She was very ugly to look at: her under-lip hung down to her breast. Besides that her nose was hooked, and her teeth black and ugly. She was not only very old, but she was very ugly, with a hump on her back and a bald head, and when the heralds saw her they broke into rude laughter. "How ugly she is! How ugly she is! How ugly she is!" For she was really ugly enough to have frightened anybody.

You frown. “But the new story is too sad, I hate it.”

“Give me that sentence on top of the beautiful pile,” I say. “Trust me.”

One day, when she was more than usually unhappy, she perceived a little crack in the wall, through which she could see a beautiful garden, with all manner of delicious fruits and flowers growing in it. So, gathering up all her courage, she left the forest and crossed the road into what had been, in the summer, a beautiful field of waving corn, but was now only a mass of hard stalks.

And how beautiful everything on the other side was! It was a beautiful evening; the sun shone brightly between the stems of the trees among the dark green leaves of the forest, and the turtle-dove sang clearly on the old maybushes. At last she reached a beautiful green meadow on the edge of a wood.  “Whose is this beautiful tree?”

“The tree belonged to a handsome prince, right?” You bounce in excitement, a smear of paste on your nose.

A moment later a beautiful young woman mounted on a tiger came in sight. Then the beautiful lady said: “Beautiful lady, by what mischance do you come here?”

You fold your arms and shake your head. “No! The old lady is ugly, just like me. No one would ever say that to her.  No one would ever even let her play with them at lunch. I know.”

I am, for a moment, filled with fire on your behalf. The rage turns my skin bright red. I close my eyes, grab a sentence from the ugly pile and ask for your help pasting it in.

“Madam, only look at my ugliness.” She was the ugliest woman under the sun, and, added to it all, she had three heads.

“Forgive me, beautiful maiden, if I have unintentionally offended you. When I grew up and the world came into being, everyone thought I was the most beautiful girl that ever was seen, though many hated me for it. None of the girls of my own country are beautiful in my eyes, and that is why I came to look for a wife in the land of the sun.”  She was as beautiful as an angel, with golden hair which fell in curls over her marble shoulders, and a diamond crown sparkled on her forehead.  “Blame your beauty for my boldness if I have displeased you.”

“Beautiful Princess…” said the old woman. A beautiful little white butterfly fluttered above her, and at last settled on the leaf.

“Oh,” you breathe. “Oh.”

And so the marriage was celebrated, and there was a great feast in the castle, and another in the soldiers’ barracks, and illuminations all over the town and in the beautiful gardens. Some carried baskets full of diamonds, others golden cups of wonderful workmanship, and amber, coral, and pearls, others, again, balanced upon their heads bales of the richest and most beautiful stuffs, while the rest brought fruit and flowers, and even birds. 

But the peacocks, who were sitting upon every tree waiting to salute her, and who had made up their minds to cry, ‘Long live our beautiful Queen!’ when they caught sight of the false bride could not help crying instead: “Oh! how ugly she is!”

Your hand flies to your mouth. Your eyes are big.

A beautiful litter was prepared to carry the bride to her new home, but she shrank back, saying, “I am too ugly even for a dog to eat. Can you really love such an ugly creature as I am?”

During the long pause the princess sat in the beautiful golden coach, her blue velvet mantle powdered with silver bees drawn closely round her, so that not even the tip of her nose could be seen.  “You are more beautiful than I ever was.”

You look up at me. At my pudginess and lazy eye. I smile, and my cleft palate makes my smile crooked. Just like yours.

Picking a sentence from the beautiful pile, you paste it in yourself.

When they awoke the sun was high in the heavens, the wood was beautiful in the summer morning, and the birds were flying about in the branches and the tree tops. There, in the very place they had chosen, stood a beautiful house–doors and windows, and everything all complete! At one of the windows in it stood an old woman with a most beautiful maiden by her side, looking out. “Now,” said the wife, “isn’t this beautiful?”

And it is. It is beautiful and it is ugly and it is ours.

Sage Tyrtle‘s work is available or upcoming in X-R-A-Y, The Offing, and Apex among others. She’s told stories on stages all over the world and her words have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She runs a free online writing group open to everyone. Twitter: @sagetyrtle