Once upon a time a boy met a girl. The boy was shy as he found the girl’s beauty took his breath away. He was just a common boy, the son of a village tailor. The girl was of noble birth. She lived in a castle, on top of a grassy hill overlooking the village below. It was a smaller, modestly appointed castle in comparison to the several that dotted the kingdom’s highlands, but for the tailor’s son it may have well been an imperial palace.
Everyone in the village knew of the lord and his fair young daughter living in the castle upon the hill, but few had ever seen them. They had a few servants in their employ who occasionally came down to shop in the village or see to the lord’s other affairs. It was said the lord himself was so reclusive because he had lost his lady, his one true love, many years before. The lady endured such labor giving birth to their one and only child that her body was spent. The lord had found an older midwife down in the village. He feared she had an odd look about her, but she was the only one available as his wife had her arduous labor come on unexpectedly early and fast.
There was much blood upon the table and the lady screamed in agony. The midwife spoke the fear that was borne plainly in the eyes of the lord: it seemed certain that mother and child both would die upon that table. The midwife spoke: “My lord, I can try to help. You see I have a touch of magic in me, but it always comes with a price. I can save one but not the other. If you choose between your wife and your child, surely a curse shall befall the one you choose to live, and thus upon you as well.”
The lord was now in his own personal hell. How does one make such a choice? But how could he allow them both to perish in spite of a prophesied curse, when such a decision would leave him entirely alone in the world, a man of great means, but for whom no riches could buy his happiness lost forever, and not the most skilled craftsman in the kingdom could ever mend his broken heart.
His dying lady grasped his hand weakly, and with her last ounce of strength breathed these words to him: “If you love me as I love you, let our child live, and love her enough for us both, as you have loved me…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes drifted closed. The lord looked at the midwife through eyes veiled by warm tears and nodded his assent. “Save our child,” he choked quietly.
So save the child she did, and this child grew strong. Her eyes sparkled emerald green and her hair, a rich mahogany that glinted auburn in the sunlight, flowed down her back. As she came of age her beauty became nothing less than stunning, enrapturing any man who caught so much as a glimpse of her. Because of this her father was loathe to ever have her travel down into the village, but she possessed her mother’s intrepid spirit of adventure and wanted to explore the wider world.
One day while her father attended to matters of business, she found her way out of a dungeon gate in the base of the castle, on its back side, so that she could carefully wend her way down the side of the hill, all but out of sight to the villagers. When she had made her way to the edge of the village, she found herself at the door of the tailor’s shop. Glancing around nervously at first, she took a deep breath and walked in the door. The tailor himself was out and his only son was attending the shop. The young man felt his heart stop at the first sight of the maiden. Somehow he collected himself to bow and say, “Forgive me, my lady, but are you not…”
She smiled disarmingly, feeling strangely at ease with this boy she had just met. “Yes, I am the daughter of the lord on the hill. My father speaks sometimes of how the people of the village know of us but to some we are but a rumor, like a unicorn seen running free in the moonlight.” She laughed lightly, and the sound of it was like the harmony of heaven to his ears. “I have a humble request, as I see you are a tailor, or the son of one.”
He responded, only now gaining hold of his composure, “What can I possibly offer you, my lady?”
“I wish to travel along these streets and among the people of this village without sticking out like a giant in the hall of dwarves! Might you help me acquire some simpler garments than this?” she said as her hand gestured down the length of a gorgeous full-length grown, verdant as her eyes and adorned by small jewels across its shoulders and hem. “I am willing to pay any price,” and as his mouth gaped in amazement she reached below the chestline of the gown to retrieve a small pouch filled with more gold coins that the boy had seen in all his short life together.
“My lady, I… I ask no gold. I only ask…” He gulped, summoning his courage. “That perhaps I could spend some time alone with you.”
He did not think it possible, but the smile she returned to him made her even more radiant than before. “Yes… I would really like that as well. Somehow I fear neither of our fathers would approve, however. We must meet somewhere in secret, tomorrow afternoon.”
They continued to talk for an hour, then two, as he took a simple, light brown peasant dress and tailored it to a perfect fit, though she asked that he purposefully make it not too perfect. They both blushed slightly as he used a thick string to measure each of her young curves, and unconsciously his hands lingered upon her in the process. They spoke of their likes and dislikes, of her ambition to not live her life locked in a castle, of his to become an errant bard traveling the kingdom and not remain a tailor all his life.
By the time he had finished the dress, they were unquestionably deep in love with one another; though they were both so young, they felt as if they had old souls meeting once again. He knew his father was still long to return. Though his mind knew it was foolish, some other part of him that was hithereto unfamiliar to his consciousness but now felt like it was burning him from inside out hoped that she would change right in front of him. Somehow without him saying the word she sensed this and spoke to him:
“I would love to change right here with you, but I cannot.”
“Of course you can’t, I mean…” He wasn’t sure what to say, he just knew that all custom of modesty would find such an action unacceptable.
“No,” she sighed, looking away. “You don’t understand. I really do want to, but I truly cannot, for you see, I have a curse upon me.”
The boy arched his eyebrow in sudden dismay and confusion. “A… curse?”
The girl sighed, heavier this time. She related the story of her birth and added, “The curse is that no man may behold me in my nakedness. Should that happen, it shall be the end of me… All these years it seemed not so bad, a trivial matter that perhaps I could live four score years while easily avoiding. But now…” and she sighed again.
She stepped into the shop’s back room to change. He just stood there, bereft of any sense, enthralled so by her but unable to avoid a tinge of bittersweetness upon hearing of her curse.
She came out, and though the peasant dress was plain, unadorned, and intentionally not so shapely upon her, he could not perceive her as anything less than angelic, and thought his “skill” would still be insufficient to prevent the other villagers from gawking at her wherever she went.
She stepped up to him, looking up into his eyes, then leaning forward to whisper softly in his ear, “Thank you.” Then as her face turned she pressed her lips to his. His eyes widened in shock but soon he returned it, his arms wrapping around her; he embraced her firmly but not so tight, fearing that she could break into a million shards of glass, but a dream glimpsed in a deceiving mirror.
She giggled, “The curse never said anything about kissing a boy, thank goodness, because I fear I could never resist one so cute and kind and…” She giggled more and then looked out the window, becoming suddenly alarmed. “The sun is setting! I must return to the castle before darkness falls…” She turned again to him. “Tomorrow, when the sun is at its highest… there is a place in the woods on the other side of the hill, a beautiful little clearing by the river that it seems no one else knows about, including my father! Meet me there, beautiful boy,” she breathed as she kissed him quickly again, and reluctantly exited the shop. He saw her literally dancing out the door and was further moved by the grace of her lithe step.
The boy could barely sleep that night, thinking instead of an excuse to give his father to leave the shop behind for several hours. Since he was traveling to a forest glade, he told the tailor that he would spend the whole afternoon gathering wood. It was not so much of a stretch.
As high noon approached, he made his way to their appointed rendezvous. He stumbled his way along the rarely-trod forest trail she had described and after coming around the largest oak tree he’d ever seen, into which he saw both of their initials carved as she had promised, he came into the clearing. Glancing up he noticed the sun was not quite yet at its highest, and when he glanced down, his jaw dropped…
For there she was, his new love, the girl who was not the girl of his dreams, because even his dreams could not be so bold as to conjure a beauty like hers, and his sleepless night had left him no opportunity to dream of her after their magical meeting. She was in the river itself, a few feet from the sandy bank, and she was bathing, and dancing as she did, frolicking in the gently running water, alive with such spirit as he had never seen in another human being.
He blinked, and only as his eyes reopened, adjusted somewhat to the blindingly bright sunlight, did he realize she was naked. For the second time, his heart stopped at the sight of her. At once his boundless pleasure transformed into unspeakable horror as the realization washed over him. Then he thought that she did know yet that he had seen her, and wondered, biting his lip and fighting to breathe, just what would happen.
Fearing time might be very short, he stepped fully out onto the riverbank, and as she turned in her dance she caught sight of him and grinned across her impeccable visage, then started to run towards him. She embraced him and only when she felt her wet skin pressing against his tunic did the reality of the situation fall upon her as if every brick in the walls of her castle and crumbled and crushed her in one swift blow.
“I love you,” he cried, not hesitating to hold her tight as he could this time, as if that could somehow prevent her doom, whatever that was meant to be. “I love you too,” she simply returned, looking deeply into his eyes as she began to choke back sobs.
She looked down, thinking pensively, then up again. “The old lady said that should I ever be seen… I would have one hour left to live. But…”
“But?” he repeated, looking at her with hope against hope making his heart beat out of his chest.
“She said… that the curse cannot be broken, nor avoided in any way. But… if this man who saw me was my one true love, then though my human form should perish, I would remain in the earth far longer.” He asked her what that meant, but she knew no more.
Both knowing the sands of the proverbial hourglass were quickly slipping away, they embraced and made love upon the sands of the riverbank. As they sensed the hour was almost spent, he kissed her one last time and said, “I am so, so sorry my love. If… can I make one final request of you?”
She smiled, still sweetly if sadly, and said, “Anything, my beautiful boy.”
“Please dance for me. When I saw you leaving the shop yesterday… and today when I arrived… watching you dance, it was as if your body belonged to the spirit of joy itself. If you must leave me that is how I wish to last see you…”
Without another word she began to dance, dance with the abandon that only imminent death yet limitless joy could bring, because if she must perish, she would not want to be anywhere else nor with anyone else. With peerless grace her limbs moved as she seemed to float along the sand. Still she began to feel a change come over her moving body, from her deepest core at first but quickly radiating out. She felt her body become heavy and her limbs stiff, and so reached skyward once more, one leg planted and the other extended behind her, her arms vertical, her head tilted back so she now stared at the sun directly overhead.
And the sunlight itself seemed to flash and blind the boy. Blinking several times he gratefully regained his vision, and saw his love there. Truly her human form was gone, but out of the depths of his devastation, his heart lifted just a bit, knowing that she would forever be in her favorite place, doing what she loved best and what he loved best to see her doing.