By Taylor Gilliam
It was a place you’ve never heard of, in a time long before you were thought of. It was a celebration, and the extravagant evening, the feast, it was all for her. As the beauty of the village, she was the prize. She was in the eye of every man, young or old. The women adored her when in her presence, showering her with flattery and appreciation. When they were not, they cut her down in envy, hoping that their vicious words might by some miracle steal away even a morsel of her beauty. She was surrounded by hungry eyes. They all wanted her in some way, beneath them in their bed, beside them as a recipient of their vow, before them as a victim of their blade. But they had all been denied, as she had not yet reached the appropriate age for marriage, the loss of her virtue, or death. That is, she hadn’t until today. Eighteen was the age for which they anxiously awaited, chomping at the bit behind their eyes. Alouette had prayed desperately the night before that by some blessing, she would not wake up. But she did wake up, and she woke to the sound of her father entering into her bedroom. “It has been decided”, he told her, and quickly left in order that she could prepare for the first of the two ceremonies.
Alouette had become the entire focus of everyone’s attention by the time she had turned twelve. It was clear that she would grow into the woman who would be the jewel of her generation. She had never thought of it that way. She felt closer to a prized hog than a diamond in the rough. It was said to be her eyes that affirmed her to the people of the village. She had dark, stirring eyes—a deep shadowy brown that one could so easily wander too far into—framed by long, black eyelashes. They sparkled in the light like priceless gemstones, and seemed to fulfill the desires of any that had the privilege to meet them.
There were perhaps 600 people in the village, and they all had a reason to bear witness to this day. The mothers and fathers of the young men had hopes that their son might be chosen to wed the young woman that had been titled the most beautiful maiden in the village’s history. She was only followed closely by Jena, an elder whose beauty was tarnished by flame years ago in a terrible accident. Her face was now disfigured with burns. Rumors circulated for decades after that incident about how it happened, whether it was truly an accident or if some envious young woman or a victim of unrequited love for her had burned her out of spite.
The young women and their parents were anxious as well. Every man within Alouette’s father’s age restriction that he had set for his daughter, 16-36, refused to accept any other woman until Alouette’s husband had been decided. They all had the hope, even the poorest and lowliest, that just maybe they would be chosen as hers. The elders of the village were required to approve the match, and even if there was a member of the village that was unmarried or childless, they involved themselves in it just for the drama of it all. So, it was indeed a remarkable day. It was Alouette’s possible suitors who may have been the most anxious. Beauty was status, perhaps the highest status, at least in marriage. If one of these men were chosen for such an opportunity, they would not only receive a beautiful bride to bear their children. They would have power and hold authority. They would move substantially up in rank and would never be denied respect. If their children were beautiful as well, they would want for naught, just as Alouette had in her childhood.
She hurriedly prepared for the first ceremony, careful to avoid her reflection. It taunted her, sneered at her, it was the cause of her misery. Her long, golden hair cascaded in waves down her back, reminding her how easily she could be snared. Her high majestic cheekbones betrayed her. Her perfect, full lips laughed at her, and her long, delicate slender fingers seemed to choke her, keeping her from ever being able to catch a breath. Her shell was her enemy. Convinced her soul was meant for a plain, maybe even ugly body, she was trapped.
Her face was stone as she fumbled with the back of her gown, button after button. It was a difficult feat on her own. When she was fourteen and her body began to change, her father did away with the two maidens she had to help her with these tasks. Only her husband would ever be granted the chance to appreciate her body. When she finally secured the back of the dress, she forced herself to turn to the mirror. She wanted to know what she would look like when she finally met the man she would spend her life with. The gown was a captivating green that set off her dark eyes, and they had never looked so alive. It was floor length and heavy, with long sleeves that began just off the shoulder exposing her slim collar bones. It would never be something she would choose for herself. She had begged her father to allow her to wear her late mother’s dress, as was the village custom. Alouette had never seen her mother in the dress, she never had the chance to ask her to put it on. She could not even remember what her mother looked like, she had only ever been told that her own beauty surpassed her mother’s. It was almost as though that fact was supposed to console her. She had admired the dress for as long as she could remember, catching glimpses of it whenever she had the opportunity to go into the large storeroom at the back of the house where her father kept it hanging near the left corner. When she was sixteen, without her father’s knowledge, she put it on herself, only for a few minutes. It was a simple dress, and nothing like the cumbersome burden she wore today. It was a gentle blush that didn’t have layer after layer, but fell gracefully to the floor in one piece, gently draping over her curves. She remembered looking at her reflection wearing the dress, and for once didn’t wish to turn away. Surprising herself, she did not mind how she looked wearing her mother’s legacy. Despite her earnest request to wear it for the first ceremony, her father had refused. “You, my dear, are far too exquisite to wear a dowdy hand-me-down as the other girls do.” When she continued to protest after his kind words, he struck her in the arm.
Alouette had become accustomed to such treatment, her father beat her often. She hadn’t expected anything less, fathers were what kept young girls in the village from turning into the snakes that women naturally are by nature. Without the molding of her father, Alouette surely would have used her beauty to manipulate men for her own good, or sold her beauty by the night. Women did not have the capability to live moral lives without the guidance of men. This was what every woman had gone through, it was one of her many rites of passage to becoming a woman of the village and Alouette accepted it. Although, she had never heard of a woman ever doing such things, and wondered about it a time or two. Her father would leave bruises but never scars. He would never touch her face, the one place that she prayed he would.
The first ceremony’s dress was specifically made for Alouette, at the request of her father. Every part of designed to her exact measurement. As her father led her into the crowded room where the ceremony was to take place, she was bombarded with eyes, eyes full of admiration, jealousy, and desire. Overwhelmed and on the verge of panic, she saw him. He grew wide-eyed in her presence. Tall and fair, he stood at the head of the long wooden table with a kind face—a soft face—a face Alouette may have found handsome if their meeting was under different circumstances. She was not surprised that it was Lawler, the son of the Bishop. Lawler’s father was the most influential man in the village, a bloodline that would be a perfect match to Alouette. Beauty and power seem to go hand and hand all too well. She knew she herself would never really mean anything to him, only her shell. She hated him. She wanted to tell him that she hated him. They were forbidden to speak until their wedding vows. Those promises were to be the first thing they said to one another.
The Bishop was head of the church and the most prominent of the eighteen elders. Lawler was twenty-six years of age and as the Bishop’s son, he was an apprentice for his father. After his father’s death, Lawler would take his place as head of the church and as elder. He was entitled by birth to a life of security, power, and admiration from the people of the village. The bishop was thought to be the wisest, most righteous man in the village. He was to have unmatched morals. He was a man that by no means would bribe the father of a beautiful girl for partnership of their children with a considerable price. Of course not, such a thing was highly frowned upon. It must have been just what Alouette’s father said caused him to choose Lawler as his future son: a divine revelation. He could not be questioned by any member of the village for that, it would be blasphemous. Would they really deny a calling from the gods?
Alouette went through the evening in a rehearsed manner, as she had been trained for this since her 12th birthday, learning every task she was required to perform. She participated in all of the ceremony regulations: kissing the hand of each individual elder, praying on her knees to the gods alongside her firmly standing father, pouring wine submissively into the cup of her soon to be husband, she followed each practice dutifully. None of the attendees noticed any unusual behavior. Because of this, when she returned to her bedroom at the end of the night she was surprised and impressed that she had managed to smuggle a forgotten dinner knife in one of the many layers of her gown. Setting the blade on a table near her, she locked the door tightly and pulled one of the linen sheets from her bed, laying it out underneath her feet where she stood in front of the mirror.
She was breathing heavily, though she had not done anything to give her a reason to, not yet. She stared at her reflection, watching her chest rise and fall underneath the restricting fabric of her gown. She brought her hands up to the neck of the dress, gripped as tightly as she could and yanked it down with everything inside of her. It tore a few inches right of the center seam with no possibility for repair. In a sudden frenzy, she kept at it, ripping through every layer until it lay at her feet in a tattered pile. There she stood, naked in front of the mirror, and she didn’t have to think twice about her next move. She took the knife from the table and began sawing off uneven chunks of her thick, golden hair, until her head was a ratted mess of yellow tufts sticking out here or there. As she yanked and pulled, tears began to well up in her dark eyes from the pain. The locks she had cut now rested atop the remains of her irreplaceable gown. She studied her reflection. More. She brought the knife up to her cheek, battling herself. She was not sure if the pain would be worth it. What if she regretted it? She thought about her father down the stairs, well within earshot. Bundling up an old rag from her wash bin, she shoved it into her mouth and bit down. She raised the knife again, and with shaky fingers brushed away her fears and began to slice her cheek, slowly at first, muffled whimpers escaping her mouth as the blade opened the skin. She did the same to the other cheek, quicker this time. The open wounds stung terribly and blood fell, hiding her skin. Unable to stop, she carved an outline from her forehead to her chin. She went deep this time, from start to finish. The pain. God, the pain. Her screamed seemed hardly quieted by the rag she bit down on, and it was mixed with quick, frightened breaths. She could not stop. She wanted to be sure that it would scar, and not a clean scar either. It would be jagged, repulsive scar, scar that would frighten children. Blood began to pour from her forehead, distorting her vision. The eyes, she thought. Those beautiful eyes that seemed to assure everyone of her beauty. What could she do? She thought for a moment, only a moment, of blinding herself. Perhaps she could shove the knife into her eyes just far enough to deface their color, leaving nothing but hideous red sockets of flesh. She decided against it. She wanted to see them scream.
Her face and hands were covered in her own blood. Deep red streaks had ran down on to her shoulders and chest, falling to stain her belly. Splatters painted the lost mane that surrounded her. It was an ugly thing, this pile of unraveling fabric and blood stained locks that she stood on. Surprisingly, it disgusted her more than this new reflection. Although, to be fair, she could not altogether see her new reflection. She could only see the shadow of it underneath the blanket of blood that ran down her face from forehead to chin and beyond. It occurred to her then to try and control the bleeding. She took the rag from her mouth, her jaw sore from biting, and held it firmly against her face to stem the flow of blood. She was able to put the crimson soaked rag down for a few minutes every now and then before lifting it again to her face, lessening the blood when it began to weigh down her eyelashes. She used these moments to gather up the hideous heap of what she had always been told were her best qualities, and force it to fit underneath her bed. No one would find it until after they had realized what she had done. It was tradition that on the day of her wedding, her anxiously awaiting husband would be the first to witness the beauty of his bride. Not even Alouette’s father would be able to see her face before the ceremony. The veil she was to wear was considerably heavy, and a deep purple to match the elegant gown that hung over her door. They did not wear white here, you see, for white is purity. It was not purity that was celebrated, but beauty.
She didn’t truly sleep that night, only dozed for maybe an hour or two, and dressed herself as the sun rose. It seemed her entire body was pulsing, she could feel it everywhere. Any slight movement of her face and it would once again begin to sting, every inch of her face throbbing. She had washed all of the blood from her body, with the exception of her face. She only cleared it away from her eyes and around her lips. She wanted to see the faces of the village when Lawler unveiled her, and the metallic taste of blood was nauseating. She was thankful for the substantial weight and dark color of the gown as it camouflaged any trace of the act she had committed. She could only faintly see through the veil when she pulled it over her face, she was almost blind. The long train draped behind her from the top of her head down to her feet, with a few inches or so brushing the floor, and trailing behind her as she walked. She waited.
When her father entered the bedroom, she held her breath, wondering if he could smell the blood. He kissed her on her forehead and she sunk into herself, cringing. Her tender wounds cried out against the light pressure of his lips as she fought to keep silent. He led her from the room, and she finally exhaled as she heard the door shut behind her. She held onto his arm as they left their home and walked through the streets to the temple. She began to sweat, breathing heavily. The tufts of hair near her forehead were wet underneath the veil, and wondered if it was sweat causing it or if the bleeding had begun again. The open temple doors revealed the grand hall. The room was plain, no decoration or flower to be found. The assembly that had gathered sat closely together on wooden benches, anxiously awaiting the bride. As Alouette and her father entered, the eyes of the crowd feasted on her, leaving no part untouched. The veil was dark, but she could see their eyes. They felt how they always feel—like sharp claws scraping against her soul, chipping away. The room was silent as they walked, there was no music. The silence roared, raiding her ears. Their steps were slow, and when they reached Lawler, standing there so confident with a smile as wide as his ambition, she thought of what her life would have been if she had not done what she did. It was only when she imagined this life of closed doors that she felt her shoulders relax.
Positioning herself opposite Lawler, he raised his hands to the veil, smiling all the while. She sucked in a sharp breath as he lifted the dark, thick fabric from her face. It was stuck to the crusted blood that had dried along her jaw and on her forehead, and stung as he pulled the veil from the wounds. Her betrothed was the first face that she saw, and he gave an expression of absolute revulsion. She had never been the recipient of something like this before, and she would cherish it all her life. She would never forget it. Lawler turned away as quickly as he could. He couldn’t even look at her. When the attendees of this grand day, the day that was meant to be the happiest day of her life, and perhaps it was, caught sight of her, there was an outrageous uproar. Women shrieked, and covered the eyes of their children. Men gasped and cried out in horror. Her father howled in anger. Alouette hardly noticed. She did not even turn to see the faces of the village as she had wanted to. She had caught her reflection in a gold, reflective candlestick nearby, and she could not stop smiling at it.
Painting: When Peace Rains Down, Jennifer Miller