I think about folk music more than I should.
I listen to a lot of it, you understand, and being me, I find myself wondering about all the bits around the edges—did Lord Donald marry again? Who was tithed to hell instead of young Tam-Lin? Did William Taylor’s bride have anything to say when his jilted lover showed up and shot him at the break of day?
Child Ballad 32 is a loathly lady story. The only popular version I know of is Steeleye Span’s “King Henry,” on Below the Salt. I have had this album for well over a decade, and occasionally I found myself wondering about the monstrous lady in the story, and even more about King Henry, who agreed to kill his horse and hawk and hounds to feed her. I don’t know that I’d easily forgive someone who forced me to kill my dog.
This had been kicking around in my head for the better part of a decade, and then I was privy to a very odd conversation in a bookstore about people with extreme forms of body dysmorphic disorder, and then I drank a lot of coffee and drove for about forty-five minutes and “King Henry” came on the CD player and I went home and wrote the story in one long jag, which probably explains a few things about it.
I cannot tell you if it’s good, because it may not be. It was painful to write, and I can’t say I enjoyed doing so, and I didn’t feel like I fit back into my skin quite right afterwards.
One could, with justice, write this story from any number of points of view. This is the one I wound up with. If it reads anything like it wrote, then it will be a sad story and a bitter one, and I don’t know that you’ll enjoy reading it. (And if it does not read like it wrote, and is merely overwrought and gloomy and plagued by adjectives, then you will not enjoy reading it for entirely different reasons. So there’s that.)
Still, I think I feel on some level that if I throw it at the blog, I can be done with it, and rather like having your ears finally pop after a plane flight, I will fit between my skull bones properly again, and need not worry about it anymore.
If you are fond of trigger warnings, take a handful from the bowl.
My husband never forgave me for the hounds.
Everyone knows the song by now, I suppose—how the king was hunting, and stayed the night in a haunted hall, and a monster came in the night and trapped him inside. He killed his animals—“his hawk and his horse and good greyhounds”—to feed her, and then she demanded that he lie down beside her as man and wife.
When he woke in the morning, the monster was gone, and he held a beautiful woman in his arms, with the whiff of elder days about her.
The song is true, more or less. He wasn’t the king, but a younger prince, and no one ever comes up with a suitable rhyme for “goshawks.” And I would deny categorically that I was “the fairest lady that ever was seen,” then or ever. But most of the other details are right.
I did not want him to kill the hounds or the horse or even the mad-eyed goshawks, which made such pitifully small mouthfuls of feathers. But I was given no choice in the matter. These things were, you might say, the conditions of my parole.
I was enchanted two or three hundred years ago, as near as I can determine. The reasons don’t matter now. Everyone involved is dead, except for me. I have not been able to find records of my father’s house, or of the sorcerer that enchanted him, and my sense of time passing was blunted by the years. Acorns turned into worm-ridden oaks and came crashing down, tearing holes in the forest canopy around my hall, and I endured.
I should have started marking the seasons, I suppose, but I was not thinking clearly. Being turned into a monster will do that to you. I was sunk into despair, curled up in the back of the ruined hall. Hunger was the only thing that drove me outside. It may have been several seasons before I travelled more than a hundred yards from the hall, and ate more than lichen clawed from the stones.
I was—well, I suppose I was a sort of bear-like creature, but a bear crossed with something else, and larger than any mortal bear had ever been. I had shaggy fur and horns like a cow, and enormous claws. My eyes were very large, and the edges of my tongue turned up against my fangs.
It was a long time before I could look at myself in a still bit of water without screaming. Screaming only made it worse, because they weren’t proper screams at all, but the bellows of a monster. It was too exhausting. I stopped looking.
My claws bothered me the most, because they were always in front of me,and I couldn’t ignore them. But they were useful for tearing into rotten logs to turn up grubs, sometimes even honey, and I learned to flip fish up onto the banks with them. The magic would not have let me die of starvation, but it did not much care if I felt hungry, so I learned to fish and eat grubs and mushrooms and anything else I could find.
The first knight came to the hole a year or two after the enchantment took hold. I tried to hide from him. I was ashamed. I had been beautiful, and now I was a great shaggy monster reduced to eating insects and gnawing strips of lichen off the stones with my teeth. I did not want to see him. I was afraid that he would try to kill me, or worse, that he would recognize me.
It was the magic that dragged me out of the ditch where I was cowering. It walked me up the pathway like a marionette and forced me through the open doorway. The knight started up, looking shocked, and I dug my claws into the floor until the nails split and tried to beg for mercy.
The magic pried my jaws open, and in a voice like stones grinding together, I demanded meat.
He attacked me. The magic used my claws to kill him.
I think I went a little mad after that.
I did not eat him. I want to be very clear on that. Sometimes the songs say that I did, but the bodies vanished into the magic without any help from me. But I went blundering out of the hall, bellowing. I rolled in mud and wiped my claws endlessly in the grass, trying to get the blood off. I tore at tree trunks, trying to scrape it off in the clean heartwood, tearing down great swaths of ivy that fell across my face and back until I could hardly move.
Eventually my claws came clean again, but I could smell his blood for days afterwards, a coppery stink that clung to my fur and stuck in the back of my throat.
It was a long time before I could go back to the hall. I don’t know that I would have, but the magic poked and pinched at me, the murderer returning to the scene of the crime.
And yet, when I did return, I was glad. The twin saplings growing on either side of the door, one a little closer to the wall than the other, were like friends. The tumbledown wing with the shattered beams and the nests of wood-doves were familiar. I felt glad. It was an unexpected sweetness, like tearing open a ruined tree and finding wild honey inside.
The body was gone. The bloodstains seemed old and faded. I allowed myself to hope that it would not happen again.
The second knight came in winter, and he had such frightened eyes. I would have let him go—I swear I would have—but when the magic took me by the throat and I growled “Give me meat!” he fell down and begged for mercy.
Mercy is not the same as meat. I killed him, still on his knees.
I tried to commit suicide several times after that, but the magic would not let me. Monsters do not drown easily, and I tore the hide around my throat to shreds without ever getting near the vein. When I ate poisonous mushrooms, I shook and sweated and lay in a puddle of my own vomit for three days, but I did not die. It was a cruel immortality.
There were more knights after that. Some of them attacked me at once. One or two listened to my demands, but they balked at killing their horses to feed me. I appreciated that. It was an unkind thing for the magic to ask. I bore their horses no ill-will, and when their masters were dead, I cut the traces and sent them wild-eyed back to their stables.
The magic was very particular about knights. I suppose the sorcerer had some grudge against them. I saw a woodcutter several times and while I did not show myself, the magic had no interest in him. A band of gypsies moved into the hall for three nights while it hailed outside, and I slept in a den beside the river and offered none of them violence. It was only ever knights.
One knight brought a priest who threw holy water in my face. “Begone, fiend!” he cried. I laughed like an earthquake because it was all so stupid and hopeless. I killed the knight—I had to—but the magic did not care about the priest, so I let him go.
You would think that the priest would have warned others away, but instead more knights came in a flood, ten or twenty of them, sometimes as many as three in a week. It is terrible how rapidly killing becomes banal. The murders became a horrible play that we acted out together, and I began to hate the knights for forcing me into my role. I hated their bravado and their foolish metal weapons that barely marked me. I hated their stupidity. I hated the magic that drove me, but the magic did not needle me if they stayed out of my hall, so it became easier and easier to kill them.
A philosopher would probably say something wise about becoming a monster in heart as well as form, but we did not get many philosophers in the woods.
I don’t know which knight it was that finally killed his horse. The magic drove me stomping and snarling into the hall and I uttered my lines—“Give me meat!” and instead of attacking me or begging for mercy or looking at me with total noncomprehension, he said “Very well,” and cut his horse’s throat in front of me.
I hated him more than any of the rest put together. The horse was entirely blameless, which was more than you could say of the knights. It was a gray horse, and it made a horrible choking noise as it died.
He brought the meat into the hall, and the magic lowered my head. It was still warm, and I thought with every bite that I would be violently ill, but the magic had hold of my teeth and tongue, and I swallowed and chewed and swallowed and chewed and thought that the nightmare would never end.
The only virtue of being a monster is that we take very large bites.
When the horse was nothing but bloody bones and hide, the magic took my voice again, and I demanded something to drink. “Very well,” said the knight, and threw me an entire skin of wine that had been draped across his saddlebow. I drank it. It was probably drugged, but if the mushrooms hadn’t killed me, I had little hope of this doing the job.
Both the knight and I were listening closely to see what I would say next. I licked the last drop from the wineskin—mercifully, it blotted out the taste of the gray horse—and opened my mouth and said “Lie with me tonight.”
Oh, you may think that being a monster renders one immune to shame, but you would be wrong. If I could have blushed under my fur, I would have. To say such a thing—to say such a thing to a stranger—and I in the form of some disgusting horned beast with claws like daggers—dear god! I wanted to tear a hole in the stone floor and hide myself in it. I had been a virgin girl, you know, before the spell, and certainly there were no males of my kind in the wood.
Revulsion showed plain on his face. I was glad to kill him then, as he choked out his refusal. Horse-killer. Did he think that I wanted him? Once he was dead, no one would know that I said such a thing.
It was just as well that the wine was drugged. I slept in the corner of the hall for a week, until the first thought in my mind upon waking was Food and not Lie with me tonight.
There was a long stretch without knights and I dared to hope a little. The ground where the gray horse had been butchered was cloaked with ferns and I could look at it without seeing bones. But eventually spring followed winter, over and over, and another warrior forced his way through the woods to my hall.
The device on his shield was strange to me. He did not kill his horse, but the next one did—his horse and his hound as well. I wept over the hound. I don’t know what he made of that, and he did not live long enough to tell anyone about it.
So it went for a long time. None of them agreed to my last demand. There was a group of a half-dozen that came with a net and boar-spears. They were the closest to killing me, I think. I was not able to get the last spear out of my hide by myself. My claws could not grip a spear shaft easily, and it was high up on my back, under the shoulder. I pawed at it until it festered, driving the broken shaft deeper, and while the magic would not let me die, it did nothing to heal me either.
The pain might have driven me truly mad at last, but a mad hermit had settled into the forest that year, and when I came blundering and feverish out of the woods, he did not run away.
I say a hermit—he might have been a saint. St. Francis, who preached to the birds, might well have ministered to monsters. This one kept up a steady stream of nonsense and prayer, and when I flopped myself down on the ground, he came towards me, muttering of Androcles and the lion. He stepped up on my shoulder and pulled the spearpoint out—I bellowed—and that was the end of the matter.
“Eh?” he said, waving the spearpoint at me. “Eh? All right and tight inside your skin now, Beast? Shall you eat me now? Perhaps I should eat you instead! You look as if you would taste of onions. I might, you know. If I had cheese.”
I visited him often after that. Never when I had just killed. I did not trust the magic to lie quiet when there was blood on my claws. But after a week or two, when I had lain in my den and dreamed red dreams, I would shake myself off and roll in the stream, and go to see my friend again.
“Now where do you go, Beast, when you are gone for so many days?” he asked. “No matter! I am wearing the moon in my hat tonight, do you see?”
I had no speech, except when the magic dragged it out of me, but I liked to hear him talk. It reminded me of being human. Sometimes I brought him fish. He didn’t seem to mind the toothmarks.
“Such a great beast you are!” he said. “Your eyes glow in the dark, and your claws are larger than my little knife. You will have the larger share of the fish, then, and I will have the smaller.”
I had not known that my eyes glowed in the dark before. It is not the sort of thing you notice yourself.
You may think that it would bother me to have myself so described, but it had been…oh, a very long time. You get used to things. When I caught a glimpse of myself in a still pond, I expected to see a monster now. My eyes saw very well in the dark, much better than any human. My hide was coarse and hairy and knobbed with scars, but it turned spearpoints aside. I did not love my claws, but they were mine, and they were useful for dispatching fish.
The hermit grew old and died. I think it was that that made me most aware of the passage of time. His beard had been black when he came to live in my part of the forest, and when he died, it was dirty white and thick enough for a swallow to nest in. The saplings by my door grew into trees, and one came down in a windstorm, and three more grew up in its place. Seasons had piled up together while I brought the hermit fish and listened to him twitter like an old bird.
I dug him a grave with my paws. I was clumsy picking him up. My claws tore at his skin a little, and that distressed me much more than killing the last few knights had done. I howled my distress until the ground shook, but I believe that he would have forgiven me. He was a kind man, although he ate far too many mushrooms.
I lost track of the years then, in grief. In my father’s hall, long ago, they used to say that it is not a good idea to mourn someone for more than a year and a day, for fear that their ghost will not lie quietly. If the old hermit’s ghost walked in the forest, I never saw it.
Does it seem strange to you, to say that in my great grief I also found moments of great joy? Perhaps it was strange. I grew very old in the forest, but not among people, and my understanding of human hearts remained that of a girl.
Nevertheless, there were moments. I recall standing in chest-deep water, the sun glittering hot through the trees, and watching minnows tug at my fur where it drifted in the water. When I climbed on the shore and turned back to look for them, I saw myself in the water. Duckweed hung from my horns like garlands, and I bellowed with laughter at the sight. When I tossed my head, the duckweed flew in all directions, and I laughed harder, stamping and prancing and howling until the trees shook.
There was a spring when the foolish wood-doves built a nest low to the ground, inside the hall itself, and raised three chicks. For weeks I did not move more than a hundred yards from the spot. The chicks were endlessly fascinating—first wet and slick and unfinished, then awkward balls of skin and fluff, and finally graceful deep-breasted birds with round eyes. When they fledged at last, I missed them terribly, but I was prouder of their first flight than I had been of anything I had accomplished in my short life as a human.
Time passed. I endured.
The last knight came to me in autumn. I was not surprised to enter the hall and find him—his horse was tethered outside, and had shrieked and pulled violently against the rope when I came into view. I didn’t blame him. I was a terrifying beast, and I had eaten far too many horses.
They had cut down one of my saplings. It took me a little time to realize why the face of the hall looked different, but I roared when I saw it.
There were huntsmen in the hall, in addition to the knight. They had set up a temporary camp in the hall, it seemed—there were rings with red-eyed hawks on them, a deer roasting over a fire, and a pack of hounds cowering in the corners. They had smelled me coming long before I arrived.
The huntsmen fled through the tumbledown slabs of stone, clambering over the rafters and throwing apologies over their shoulders to the knight. “My prince,” they called him.
The hounds were more faithful. They crept to the prince’s feet and whined in their throats.
I stomped on the floor, up and down, until the walls shook. “Give me meat!” I thundered.
Refuse me, I thought. Let us end this quickly.
“As you wish,” said the prince, taking the deer from the spit—a spit made of my sapling—and tossing in down in front of me. “This is your hall, and I have trespassed.”
I ate the deer. It took five or six bites. It was the first time I had eaten cooked meat since the hermit died.
“More meat,” roared the magic.
“You have eaten it all,” said the prince.
“Kill your horse then,” said the magic. Please, say no. Your life is forfeit already, prince. Please refuse me. I do not want to choke down your horse’s flesh.
“As you wish,” he said again, and went outside to kill his horse.
None of the other knights had brought hawks with them. I ate them next. They died with hoods on, their necks wrung, and they were not even a mouthful each.
I wept for the hounds. So did he. That was the moment that I remember most clearly. He sobbed as he killed them—one hoarse dry sob apiece—and I sobbed as I ate them. The last one whimpered piteously as its fellows died, and looked up at the prince with terrible trusting eyes to the last.
I prayed to fall down dead, but the gods had abandoned me long ago. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted the world to be unmade, so that it never came to this moment at all. He looked at me, and I saw that I had made him choose between his own life and something that had loved him, and the knowledge of his choice fell between us like a blade.
I ate the hounds. He has never forgiven me for that.
“Lie down beside me,” I said that night, in a voice choked with wine and misery. The prince nodded jerkily and laid his mantle across the floor. “As you wish,” he said aloud, and then, in a whisper, “God have mercy!”
My hearing was very good. I shuddered and lay down.
The prince was as good as his word. He lay down beside me, on stones slicked with the blood of hawk and horse and hounds, and we touched. I could not feel him—my hide is far too thick for that—but I could smell him, and hear his heart beating against the stones. I stared into the darkness. I was sure that beside me, he was staring into the darkness as well.
He was revolted to lie down beside a monster. I was revolted to lie down beside a man who would kill his own hounds to appease a forest beast. Our mutual loathing was a strange and unwelcome intimacy. I felt as if I could smell his thoughts.
The sleep that came upon me was the magic’s doing. I slept as one dead.
When I woke the next morning, I felt small. I went to sleep larger than a bear and woke as a woman. My hands were tiny clawless things. My hide, that could turn swords and spears, had dwindled to skin as thin as paper. There was a naked man beside me, and he was awake as well.
He did what men do with women. I did not fight him. I was too small in my new skin, and my bones felt as fragile as a goshawk’s. If I had put my hands against his chest and pushed, surely they must have snapped, and gained me nothing.
Regardless, I do not think he took much joy of it. It was all of a piece with the terrible night that had passed, with the dead hounds and the dead hawks and the dead horse. It hurt, but not as much as a boar spear in the back, and I did not make any sounds at all.
There is little enough left to tell of the story. He was a younger prince, and could marry a mysterious woman of questionable origins without stirring too much outrage. The magic may have laid itself on him, or perhaps he felt that it was only just, after having lain with me in the hall. He is always an honorable man, my husband.
I am not, it must be said, quite as I was. I can still see in the dark better than a mortal woman should. When the light flares up, my eyes reflect it back green, like an animal’s. My fingernails are very sharp, and I take care to keep them blunted. We have had no children. It is, I think, for the best.
I still have a hard time with mirrors.
I am not aging quite as I should either. They have had priests in to bless me, but it does neither the priest or my husband any good. He is growing old, and I am not. This is another thing that he cannot forgive me for.
Before too long, he will be dead. He has taken a cough that will kill him soon, I think. His people do not love me, and I am very tired of them, of all their voices that never stop chattering, and of this closed-in place, and this brittle skin that keeps me bound.
On that day, when he has died, I will leave this place. The forest is still there, and the tumbledown hall. The magic is there, too, in rags and tatters. I hope that enough is left.
I will walk through the open doorway, framed by the trees that used to be my saplings. When I set foot on the stone floor, on the stain left by the blood of men and dogs, my hide will grow thick again, and the ground will shake under my footsteps. These fragile, foolish fingers will be replaced by my own strong claws. I may die of the change, but I would rather die than live like this.
If I live long enough, I will drag myself down to the still water, and look down, and see myself.
As I should be.