The Fairest of Them All
A beautiful child and a malformed child stand before me. The mother of the beautiful child weeps quietly into her long stretch of golden hair while the mother of the ugly child curls her lip. I place my hands on the arms of my golden throne and wait.
“What is it you wish?”
The mother of the malformed child bows to me. “O queen, see the children that stand before you. One is a cherub, full of glowing beauty. She will want for nothing in life.”
I look over at the child as she pats at her mother’s hair.
“Indeed, she will want for nothing. I myself was a beautiful child, and look where I am now, the ruler of a kingdom.”
“Not only a ruler, but a fair ruler.” The ugly child’s mother says.
“What do you ask of me?” I say.
“Make my child beautiful, like that one.”
“Like that one? Exactly like? Wouldn’t you rather want your child to be…more beautiful?” I raise an eyebrow. The mother’s eyes light up and she begins to respond, but my advisor interrupts.
“But that, your majesty, would not be fair.” He offers a sweeping bow.
“No, it would not.” I agree. “Tell me, women, what is the meaning of this request? Am I King Solomon? Am I to cut the child in two to see the truth of the matter?”
“Of course not!” The woman is outraged. “I would never suggest such a thing!”
I sigh, “My dear woman, I cannot make your child beautiful. Not by surgery, not by potion and not by witchcraft.”
“But it isn’t fair your majesty! The other children! They hate my daughter for her ugliness!”
I watch her narrowly, “I have already given my answer. What would you have me do?” Again my advisor steps forward.
“Ah, perhaps, my fair queen, you could make the other child less beautiful?”
“That is a thought,” I say, but the beautiful child’s mother objects, scrubbing away at her tears. “Why do you weep?” I ask.
“My husband and son died in a fire last night, a terrible accident. Please, let me live with my daughter in peace. She is all I have left!”
My advisor and I exchange glances. “You, woman, are you still resolute? You wish me to maim this child hoping that your own child may benefit in the process?”
The woman bows to me, “You are the supreme ruler of all the land. We owe all to you, my queen. I ask that you make things fair for us all.”
“You turn the matter entirely over to me?” I smile, “You don’t wish to come to a conclusion yourself?”
“You have the authority, my queen.”
“Authority you gave me.” I say. “I am beautiful, just like this cherub standing here, this child you so despise. And you trust my authority, do you?” The woman nods. “How do you know the fault is not with your own child for being so…ugly? Maybe it is she who is to blame.”
“Surely not!” The mother stamps her foot. “And in any case, you cannot make her beautiful, as you said.”
“I cannot make her outwardly beautiful, but allow her to stay with me for awhile and we will cultivate her inner soul and it will so fine that all the young men––”
“No!” The woman interrupts. “No! Young men only see with their eyes! They will not stop a moment to see into my daughter’s soul! They will trample her on the way to the great beauty’s side!”
“And so you will have me maim this beauty?”
“Yes! I wish for her to be as ugly as my own daughter! If they are both ugly the young men will not prefer one over the other!”
“Indeed the young men may pay them no attention at all,” My advisor says dryly.
I ask the malformed child’s mother if she is certain. The beautiful child’s mother clings to her daughter, looking on in desperation. The woman declares that nothing will do but fairness. I fold my hands and ask the beautiful child to step forward. My advisor tells the guards to hold her mother back.
“Compose yourself, mother.” I order her and look to the child. “Come here.” Trembling, the child steps forward.
“She is beautiful enough to sprout wings!” A nobleman near me gasps. “Do not do this, my queen! Such a pity!”
“Such a pity for your eyes, you mean.” I say sourly. “Now, child, this will only hurt for a moment.” I raise my right hand and put one long, sharp fingernail to the child’s blooming cheek. Quickly and carefully, I make one clean cut on her skin and release the child to her mother who covers the cut with her hair, then her cloak, then her tears. “There. It is done,” I say.
The ugly child’s mother gasps, outraged. “That was nothing! That will heal in a week! My child––”
“Guards go at once to this woman’s home and bring both her husband and son to me. They shall be hung on the gallows at dawn. Tell them that in all fairness to their beautiful neighbor they must be extinguished!”
“What? No, no! My queen, no!” The ugly child’s mother shouts.
“My dear woman, what are you so upset about?”
“You cannot kill my husband and son!”
“Why not?” I laugh. “You gave me authority to do so! It isn’t fair for your daughter to have a father and brother while this newly scarred child has none.”
“B-but! I only wanted you to harm her!” She points at the beautiful child whimpering into her mother’s embrace. Again I exchange a glance with my advisor.
“Give me authority to harm another and you give me authority to harm yourself.” I say. We wait for the guards and when they return I say to the woman, “Pay your last respects.”
“I beg of you, please, let my family live!” The woman drops to her knees. “I am sorry! I am so sorry that I ever came to you in the first place!”
“You don’t want me to be fair?” I ask.
“No, no, please no!”
“And what about you?” I ask the beautiful child’s mother whose tears are beginning to dry.
“Please, leave the matter be.” The mother says.
“As ruler, I cannot.” I say. I look down to the woman groveling at my feet. “Get up. Your husband and son may live.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, my queen!”
“They may live, but not with you.” I step forward. “You have asked that I commit great evil on your behalf. This I cannot let you forget. Therefore, as supreme ruler, I declare your marriage to this man to be dissolved. Husband,” I indicate the beautiful child’s mother, “meet your new wife. She is a widow in need of looking after. Child,” I look down at the ugly child. “meet your new family. I hope that you may learn to appreciate beauty, rather than to be jealous of it.”
The beautiful child’s mother pulls the ugly child into her embrace. The husband and son regard their former wife and mother with suspicion.
“What did you do?” They ask before joining hands with their new family.
I look down at the woman now motionless at my feet. She raises her head.
“Do you have no forgiveness in you?”
“Forgiveness?” I say, “But that is not what you wanted. No, my dear woman, you wanted fairness. The beautiful child is marred and now both children, beautiful and ugly have a complete family who will care for them and love them for who they are.”
“But what am I to do!”
“In all fairness I should do you harm for wanting to harm another,” I say, “but as I do rather favor forgiveness, I shall let you live in the hope that you will come to repent of your wicked ways.”
“Truly, queen,” My advisor says, “you are the fairest of them all.”