Painted Words: A Story That Repeats Itself

Image: Princess Badoura by Edmund Dulac

[Welcome to the first Painted Words! In this special fiction section of ev0ke, our talented writers will create unique stories — inspired by images chosen by you, our faithful readers! This month’s image is “Princess Badoura” by Edmund Dulac.]

There is a story that repeats itself. This is how it goes:

There is a beautiful young woman, alone and preoccupied in thoughts. She has wandered far from home and kin, lost in her inner world. She does not see the danger that is close by…but it sees her.

The woman is taken by the evil, be it demon, beast, or man, and she is never seen again.

It is always thus.

Those she left behind look for her for a time, but eventually they must give up and return to their lives. Where did the woman go, they wonder? She must have met a very bad end, to have never returned to her family.

You will see this story a hundred times across a hundred different cultures. The women in the stories will always meet a bad end by the evil, unless a man takes pity on them and saves them.

Foolishness. I will tell you what a bad end is.

A bad end is marrying young, before you know the ways of men and of your man, in particular. It is pinning all your hopes on another human to protect you, to make you more than you are without them, to recognize your worth before you recognize it yourself. It is waking after twenty years together to find he has fathered another child with someone younger than you, and left you alone to raise your children because you are now old and ugly and “unfit” to warm his bed. It is struggling to take on as many jobs as you can to support them, and being able to feed them but having no time to love them, to raise them. It is coming home after your third job and finding an eviction notice because your landlord has sold the building, and opening the door to find that your children have been taken by the state and you declared “unfit” to mother them. It is pouring your heart out to strangers across vast distances because you have no support system, and being met with laughter and suggestions to end your own life because you are “unfit” to contribute to society.

Unfit to wife, unfit to mother, unfit to live.

This is a story that repeats itself. That is how the world goes.

Without a husband, you will find that your time is not taken up by trying to make yourself attractive for someone else. You will save money on makeup, on diets, on fashionable clothes. Without children, you will not need so many jobs to afford an apartment with many bedrooms, toys to entertain them, clothes they will grow out of. Without both, you will find yourself with more time and money than you might be prepared for.

There is a misery in being bound to others. There is also a misery to be found in loneliness, and a trap.

Your days will be like a story that repeats itself. You will rise early, eat quickly, and go to bed early. You will not keep track of days, of seasons, of what is around you. If you do not have a strong sense of self to anchor you in these times, you will find yourself adrift, in danger of crashing upon sharp rocks.

This is where the trap may spring.

It is not necessary for a woman to meet her end by some external evil. You need no demon, no beast, no man to see you disappear. You need only yourself, a dark thought, and the world to provide.

There are so many ways to make an end to a story. I realized this as I sat at my little table, in the space that was both my kitchen and my dining area. My little apartment was just big enough to contain this, a bathroom, and a room that would have been a closet in my old life but which now contained a single bed. So many ways to make an end, and only the need to choose.

Perhaps because I had been so ordinary, so menial in my previous life, I wanted something bigger for my death. Something grander. Something people would tell one another again and again, long after they forgot my plain little face or my plain little name. My end, at least, would not be plain. My end would be beautiful.

There are beautiful, serene places people travel to when they wish to die. Dense forests, tall mountains, lush fields, impressive bridges. All of them lonely, and most all of them guarded to prevent death tourists from visiting. I knew I could not make my end in such a place.

There are methods some take which they say leave behind a beautiful corpse. Pills to swallow, lines to cut, rivers to float away in. All of these suppose you will be found in time, before the rot sets in and your body is spoiled. But I have no one to look for me.

The only thing that stays beautiful forever is a story, and only then if, like a marriage, you attach yourself to something bigger and grander than yourself. Dragons have devoured maidens, demons have taken brides, and witches have locked other women away in towers. These people, all, will be preserved forever within a story. Never to be saved, but never to be really forgotten. Always remembered, always as beautiful as the storyteller cares to make them.

It is harder to find a dragon, these days. I have taken out my retirement savings and journeyed to lands I cannot pronounce. I found old bones, dulled teeth, and stories. The dragons left long ago.

Are all the demons wed? They must be. I have used up all my sick days, sitting in the dark of my living room, chanting dead words in dead tongues, wearing my old wedding dress that hangs off me now like a second, sagging skin.

Can witches afford to lodge another person, these days? I suspect the craft no longer pays well. I long ago gave up my second and third jobs, but I have offered to take on work in exchange for room and board. No one tears the numbers from the paper notices I hang at the laundromat.

I should feel defeated. I should take up dating, or hire a lawyer to find my children, or simply cease to eat. Any one of these things might be expected. But I find I am tired of being a disappointment, of being disappointed. Perhaps, too, I am tired of waiting for someone else to take hold of my story. It may be time to be the end I wish to see written on the world.

I have given up my apartment in the city for a small hut in the woods, perched on leggy stilts. I built it with my own two hands (and with lovely advice from the internet and my local library), and it takes almost no effort to move it from place to place. I have planted baneful herbs in my little clay pots, and I have paid a local ironworker to make me a fine new set of teeth. At night, I have taken to creeping, and whispering into windows from which I hear the cries of women I once was.

“Come out, come out,” I whisper. “There is a good end for you out here.” No pain, no fear, no living for anyone else. An end to the loneliness, an end to the disappointment. An end to being unfit.

A few have followed me to the edge of the woods, hesitated, turned back. I smile. I am patient. The ones that I am for will come, eventually. I will be here for them, as no one was there for me.

And so, here I wait, for a story that repeats itself. The story, and its end, will be my gift to you.

[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]

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