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Authors: Pamela Ditchoff

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BOOK: PRINCESS BEAST
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"She was stupid."

"She had never been farther than the hen yard, youngster," the swan tsk-tsks.  "The hen said,
If I don't understand you, who will?  I hope you don't think you're smarter than the cat or the old woman, not to mention myself.  Don't give yourself airs!
 she squawked. 
Thank your Creator for all He has done for you.  Aren't you sitting in a warm room among intelligent people whom you could learn something from?  You do nothing and aren't the least bit amusing.  Believe me, that's the truth, and I'm only telling you for your own good.  That's how you recognize a true friend; it's someone who is willing to tell you the truth, no matter how unpleasant it is.
"

"Wow, you have an outstanding memory," Rune says.

"The hen's words made an permanent impression on my life.  I hope you learn a lesson from them too.  However, there is more to the story, and every word is true.  I left the hut and found a lake where I could float in the water.  There were other ducks, but they ignored me because I was so ugly.  Autumn came and one evening as the sun was setting, a flock of beautiful birds came out of the rushes.  Their feathers were so white that they glistened, and they had long graceful necks.  They made a loud cry, spread their huge wings and flew south.  I turned round and round in the water; I felt a strange longing and I screeched so loudly that I frightened myself."

"They were swans," Rune says.

"Yes, they were.  And I would never forget them for I felt that I loved them as I had never loved any other creatures.  I did not envy them.  It did not even occur to me to wish that I were so handsome."

"I know how that feels," Rune sighs.  Beauty, watching in the mirror, feels her nose tingle with the onset of tears.  Rune is thinking about Princess Greta and how she felt drawn to her, drawn because she was one of her kind.

"Winter came," the swan continues, "and it grew very cold.  I had to swim round and round to keep a space open in the ice.  Finally I found a hiding place beneath some bushes in the newly fallen snow and there I stayed with hardly any life left in me."

"You have suffered much," Rune pats the swan's silky feathers.

"Oh, it would be too horrible to tell you all the hardships and suffering I experienced that long winter.  Suffice it to say, I survived and when Spring arrived it found me close to death among the reeds in a swamp.   Then out of a forest of rushes swam three swans, and I felt again that strange sadness.  I decided to fly over to those royal birds, even though they may hack me to death because I, who was so ugly, dare to approach them."

Rune rolls her bulging eyes with exasperation, but holds her tongue. 

"
Kill me
, I said and bent my head humbly to await death.  What did I see in the water?  My own reflection, and no longer was I an awkward, grey bird, so ungainly and so ugly.  I had transformed--I was a swan!  Humans cast cake upon the water and all agreed I was the most beautiful of swans.  The other swans bowed to me; they all wanted to be my friends.  I was too happy, but not proud.  Such happiness I did not dream of when I was the ugly duckling."

Rune allows a long moment of silence to make sure the swan is finished.  "You didn't transform, you just grew up.  Somehow your mother's egg found its way to a duck's nest.  I've seen baby swans and I think they are beautiful, all Mother Nature's children are beautiful.  It's sad you let yourself suffer because of the unkindness of others."

The swan flaps his great wings and hisses, "Stupid, thick, little beast.  I was thankful that I had known so much want, and gone through so much suffering, for it made me appreciate my happiness and the loveliness of everything around me all the more.  I do not think you have suffered much at all.  I think you have lived a comfortable and happy life with no one telling you how ugly you are.  Only others of your own kind would find you acceptable.  Do you live in a flock of beasts?"

Rune tucks her chin and quietly says, "My mother told me we are the only two of our kind."

"Well that sounds rather fishy to me.  Perhaps the female who reared you is not your true mother.  I heard your song as I flew over the lake.  Your voice is incomparable, magnificent.  With such a voice and that beautiful face," the swan touches his beak to the mirror, "you would be the toast of my homeland, Andersen Land.  My dear little beast, a mirror cannot lie.  Underneath your gruesome exterior is a fairy tale beauty waiting to emerge."

"You think I'm gruesome?"

"If you were a bird, you’d be a vulture. Let me guess," the swan says dryly.  "You've never been ten miles away from home."

Rune wags her head to affirm the swan's guess.  "Do you think I'll grow into a beautiful girl?  When will I change?"

"Most definitely.  As to when, I couldn't say, but I do believe a journey to Andersen Land might hasten your transformation.  No land surpasses it in revealing what is true and real.  It is a fabulous place with castles finer than the emperor of China's palaces, a haven for birds of every feather and song, where flowers bloom in profusion, where two great seas casts their waves on sandy shores of islands large and small."

"Castles, beaches, flowers?"  Rune repeats in a reverent whisper.  "Is it far?"

"I have no sense of walking distance, but the border between Grimm Land and Andersen Land is a twelve hour flight.  From the border, you must travel to the most magical city of Copenhagen."

"How long would it take me to get there?"

 The swan tilts his head, sizing up Rune.  "Your body is not practical for swimming:  short legs, no webbing between your toes, no neck to speak of.  You look as if you would sink like a stone."

"I can swim quite well," Rune exaggerates. 

"Then the best way for a walking beast to travel is northeast through Jutland until you reach Fredericia, a short swim across the Little Belt from the island of Fyn.  Once on Fyn, go straight east to Odense, then southeast to Nyborg where you'll swim across the Great Belt to the island of Zealand.  The Great Belt is twenty times wider than the Little Belt, but the swim is worth the effort to reach Copenhagen, the greatest city on God's good earth."

 Beauty recognizes trepidation on Rune's face in the glass, but it's useless to voice her thought, Rune has already gone.  The swan sees it too.  She'd like to reach into the glass, grab his long neck and tie it in a knot.

"Not to worry," the swan croons and wraps a wing around Rune.  "I can fly you as far as Jutland, then return to my migration south before the snow flies."

"That's a kind offer, but . . . my mother . . . she will be sick with worry and . . ."

"If she
is
your mother," the swan interrupts.  "Why did she keep your true identity secret?  What else has she hidden from you?  Does that mirror belong to her?  She may be a witch.  More than likely, you are the daughter of a king and queen, an enchanted princess.  You're not a hatchling anymore.  You must be close to fourteen years of age."

Rune nods her head, "I
am
fourteen."

"That is the age everyone in Andersen Land ventures away from home to see the world.  Aren't you eager for a change?  You can journey to Copenhagen, undergo transformation and be back home by Christmas if you don’t care to stay, although I can’t imagine."

The beginnings of a smile curl Rune's thin lips. It was time for a quest, a quest for true love, for Hans who would surely be as cruel to Princess Greta as he was to her once he sees her as the beautiful princess she truly is.

"Take a chance.  Break out of your shell.  Hop on."

Beauty watches in despair as her daughter mounts the swan's back, carelessly leaving the mirror behind like a forsaken toy.  Beauty releases a thunderous roar that flattens the cattails, parts the water for thirty feet, and shakes every last leaf from the trees surrounding Lake Leda.  In the silence that follows, Beauty takes three deep breaths, and then succinctly addresses the mirror.

 

"Magic mirror I command,

Show me the way to Andersen Land."

And in Andersen Land, within the ancient Castle Kronborg, deep down in its cellar in a dark room where no one ever goes, Holger the Dane, clad in iron, head resting in his hands, his long beard grown right through the marble table, wakes from his ancient sleep, rises with a roar, wrenches his beard from the table, and takes up his sword.

 

* * *

 

 

Chapter Four

Bogged Down

 

"Hell's bells, that's Holger!  He snaps to only when he senses Denmark's in danger."  Elora arches an ebony eyebrow.  "Is there anything more dangerous than a mother beast whose baby beast has gone missing?"

Croesus lifts a paw and points at his mistress. 

"That goes without saying, toady boy."  Elora pats the bed, Croesus leaps to her side, and they turn their attentions to the crystal ball.  Within, Beauty's arms and legs are pumping wildly, ripping up saplings, flattening flora, clearing a path with the reckless certainty of a tornado.  The magic mirror, grasped in her right hand, stabs the air like a dagger. 

"I pity the fool that gets in her way,” Elora hoots and zooms in on Beauty's face.  However, she does not behold the fierce countenance she expected.  Beauty's mouth hangs open and spittle bubbles the corners drawn back in despair.  Her large purple nose flops wetly as a bull elephant seal's.  The fur under her bulging hazel eyes is matted with dried tears, and her eyes wear the flat look of shock victims.

Croesus throws up his chin and bays mournfully.  Elora zaps a BLT into his mouth and waves her hand over the crystal ball to check on Rune's progress.  The swan appears within the glass, descending into the persistent fog that hangs over Great Andersen Bog.  He lands in a reedy area at the eastern edge of the bog.  Rune slides off his back, and the swan wings southward.  Elora watches Rune wave good-bye to the bird as two storks raise their knobby heads from feeding. They turn one green eye each toward Rune and clatter their long, sharp beaks rapidly.

Croesus claws the ball and begins a series of whines, yelps and barks. 

Elora clouds the crystal ball and fixes him with an exasperated glare.  "First off, you are not Lassie and I'm not June Lockhart.  Second, if you think that girl can't handle a couple of scrawny storks, you're dumber than you look.  Third, this is not a case of history repeating itself.  Beauty's quest was driven by love, L-O-V-E, love.  Rune's ain't much, only a school girl crush."  Elora floats the crystal ball back to its pedestal, snaps up a halved cherimoya and a runcible spoon.  She dips into the fruit and swallows a juicy mouthful.

"I won't screw around with this spell.  We both know the only way Rune can transform is through Beauty."

Croesus dilates his pupils and trembles pathetically.

"Go ahead, make Chihuahua eyes at me until you go blind.  No way, Bub, am I setting these size 9's in Andersen Land again."  Elora shudders. "It's too precious with tin soldiers and dollies, bitty angels hiding inside blossoms; it's crawling with flowers and birds and people kissing them, hugging trees, bursting into song, checking out each others' shoes, rank, and station," Elora says and spits a cherimoya seed out the window. Unmoved, Croesus turns his nose up in the air.  He opens his mouth and moans forlornly: "Rrrooon."

"Need more?  Okay.  You can't get a minute's peace there; everybody and every thing have a story to share. While they're sharing, they're eyeballing you to determine whether you’re real or false. Plus, they hand out more advice on how to live right than Pat Robertson.
Pride goeth before a fall
, is a favorite.  Then they're giddily smug and self-righteous when someone does fall.  Even Herr Doktor, the Grimm psychologist, won't go there.  He went once and proclaimed it too pessimistic and defeatist--the Grimm psychologist, for Pete's sake! There's an Andersen Land philosopher, a parrot, flying about squawking existentialist blather and screeching,
Let us be human
!"

Croesus licks Elora's cheek and cocks his head.

 "If you're trying to suggest I take that damn parrot's advice, let me remind you I am not human, and if you push it any further, you won't be canine for long either." 

Croesus slinks off the bed and curls into a ball on the floor.  Elora finishes off the fruit and evaporates the rind and the spoon.  She reaches down and raps Croesus' head.

"Listen up, numb skull.  It's a good thing Rune can't change without Beauty's spell being broken because in Andersen Land the best a girl can aspire to is dying before puberty and going to heaven, maidenhood intact.  There are three types of females in Andersen Land: dissatisfied, yearning girls; women who manage to live past puberty, put on airs, then fall into the gutter where they belong; and sweet old grannies with twinkling eyes whose sole pleasure in life is reliving memories.  I'll tell you why the place is overrun with flora--to mask the smell of something rotten.  It's not just all the funerals, either, although there is one taking place behind every other piece of shrubbery.  Repression is rampant; the place is tighter than a bull's ass in fly season.  Rune's going to hate it.  By the time Beauty catches up to her, she'll be miserable, lonesome, homesick, and she'll run into Beauty's arms.  I'll even let you watch and you can wallow in the Hallmark moment."

 

* * *

 

Rune watches until the swan is swallowed by the bog fog.  Then, she does not survey her surroundings, nor does she set out for Copenhagen.  She closes her eyes and wishes with all her might for transformation into a lovely princess.

As she does so, the storks approach with their customary slow, sneaking strides. "Muddle, duddle, take off that skin.  It's most unpleasant," the he-stork rattles. 

Rune's eyes fly open, and taking the stork's words as an answer to her wish, she tries to shed her skin, as she had seen Hans the Hedgehog do.  She shrugs, pulls, yanks, and shakes in vain.

"Cribble, crabble," the he-stork says.  "Enough of your dancing.  You'll sink into the ooze."

"Leave the beast alone.  You should give more thought to your children who are impatiently waiting to fly to the warm lands of the pyramids," the she-stork scolds.

"I think this is not a beast, but something else wearing a beast skin.  You know as well as I how one can feel that a thing just isn't right.  By chance, young one, are you a princess of Egypt?"

"I don't think so." Rune answers.

"Muddle, duddle, what kind of answer is that?" the he-stork snaps and raises his red and black foot with irritation.  "You'll never get anywhere in this wide world if you don't learn to say what you mean and mean what you say."

"My name is Rune. Until last night, I believed I was just as you see me.  Then I found a mirror in my mother's room that I'd never seen before. When I looked in that mirror I saw another face, a face very different from my own.  Creechy, I should have brought it with me!  The swan that flew me here from Grimm Land said it was the face of a beauty, a princess.  He said that in Andersen Land, he transformed from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, and that here I may also transform from an ugly beast into a beautiful princess."

"Fiddle-faddle," says the she-stork.  "That was the ugly duckling.  Always going around telling that untrue story.  He grew from a hatchling to an adult."

"That's what I said," Rune adds. 

"However," the he-stork says, twisting his head and eyeing Rune from head to toe.  "Some in Andersen Land have been transformed after being under the evil influence of a spell.  That must be the case for you because you are so ugly.  I know just the story to tell you, and listen carefully for it is a good and true one."

Rune dislodges her feet from the muck and sits on a fallen white birch.

"Hundreds of years ago one of my ancestor lived on the roof of a Viking chieftain's house," the he-stork begins.  "One night he saw three swans descend to the shore of yonder lake in the bog's center.  One swan cast off her skin and revealed her true self:  a young Egyptian princess.  She had come to gather water lilies, which doctors said would cure her father's illness.  She dove into the water and the other two flew up with her swan skin in their beaks."

"Who were the other two?" Rune asks.

"Her evil older sisters.  Now be quiet and listen!" The he-stork clatters his bill and Rune imagines how satisfying it would be to slap it off his head.  However, her desire to hear the rest of the story subdues her flash of anger and she folds her hairy hands in her lap.

"
Dive down into the dark water!
the swans cried.
 Never again shall you see Egypt. You shall stay here in the wild bog forever.
 Then they tore her swanskin into hundreds of pieces and flew away.  The princess wept, her tears falling on the trunk of an old alder tree and it began to move.  Its branches became arms--it was the Bog King himself!  He pulled the princess down into the bog leaving only black bubbles on the surface."

"You are so long-winded," the she-stork complains.  "Get to the point so we can leave."

The he-stork bows grandly to his wife.  “A long time passed, then a green stalk shot up through the water, unfolded a leaf, and in the center was a bud.  One sunny morning, the bud opened and inside was a beautiful little child that looked much like the Egyptian princess.  My ancestor, being noble and kind, took the baby and laid her beside the sleeping wife of the chieftain.  The woman had no children of her own, and when she woke, she happily hugged the baby and named her Helga.   However, the child kicked and screamed and only went to sleep when the woman released her.  She worked all day setting the house in order for the return of her husband then lay down next to Helga for the night.  When she woke just before sunrise, the child was gone and in its place was a big, ugly frog."

"Frogs aren't ugly!" Rune shouts.  "They're iridescent green and gold and they sing . . ."

"Muddle-duddle," the he-stork rattles his bill.  "Compared to you, a frog may be beautiful, and if you truly want to transform, you will hold your tongue and listen."

One swift kick could break both his legs, Rune is thinking, but his mate could easily blind her with that long bill.  That's all she needed--to be ugly
and
blind.  "I'm sorry.  Please go on."

"Yes, and make it snappy," the she-storks adds.

"As soon as the sun's rays came through the window, the frog transformed into the lovely little child, and this happened each night thereafter.  By day Helga was as beautiful as a fairy but her character was wild and evil; at night she was an ugly frog with sad eyes and sat whimpering quietly.  These transformations were caused by the two natures within her.  In the daytime she had the shape and appearance of her lovely mother but the soul of her father.  At night her kinship with the bog king could be seen in her body, but then she had the sweet character and heart of her mother."

"Either or, either or, let us be human!" a voice squawks from the treetops.  Rune looks up and sees a brightly colored parrot perched in the branches.  "Who is that?" she asks.

"The Andersen Land philosopher," the he-stork says. 

The parrot blinks its white eyelids.  "Longing breaks away from the earth and starts out wandering; the flower gets wings and flits inconstant and unwearied here and there; swiftly the objects vanish and reappear, but before every disappearance is a present enjoyment, a moment of contact, short but sweet, evanescent as the gleam of a glowworm, inconstant and fleeting as the touch of a butterfly . . . "

"Do be quiet," the he-stork shouts, "for I am in the middle of a story that is real and true."

The parrot cocks his head at the sound of breaking twigs and takes flight across the bog.

"Cribble-crabble!" the she stork whispers.  "Look over there."

Fifty yards away are two boys with bows slung over their shoulders.  One scoops out a hole in the bog and the other lays a small wooden box inside.  They kiss flowers and throw them on the grave then march solemnly away. 

"Probably a lark they shot with their arrows.  It now flies on golden wings in heaven.  Vile boys!"  The she stork clatters her bill at her husband.  "And our children wait unprotected in the nest.  Fly, fly, fly!" she shrieks.  Three young storks rise from a nest a few yards away, and their parents join them, flapping their huge wings.

"Wait," Rune pleads and begins to run as the storks wing southward.

"What happened to the princess?  Was the spell broken?"  she cries after them.

The storks disappear into the fog, leaving Rune alone at the shore of the bog lake.  Before her, a withered lotus flower floats on the water.  To her left, two branches on an alder trunk sprout fingers and stretch toward Rune.

 

* * *

 

Croesus throws up his chin and bays: "Rrrooon."

"Can it!" Elora snaps.  "I am not leaving this palace to stand up to my butt cheeks in bog muck and wrestle with the Bog King.  Besides," she says with a sly smile.  "I can't leave now; Samhain is nearly upon us."

Croesus leaps from the bed and chases his tail in excitement.  Elora throws back the covers and walks to her Rateau vanity. She sits on the seat and unbraids her long raven hair. 

"Ah, Samhain, All Hallows Eve, the Celtic New Year, the night when the walls between the world of the living and the world of the dead are thinnest.  As always, we are hosting the
only
party in town.  I sent out 300 invitations to the living and 300 to the dead." 

Croesus rises up on his hind legs and plays air guitar to the mirror.

"Check yourself, Captain Obvious.  I've already booked a band in keeping with the spirit of Samhain, The Rock Bottom Remainders." 

BOOK: PRINCESS BEAST
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